READERS GUIDEThe questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of So Much Life Left Over, the new Louis de Bernières novel about a group of British men and women struggling to cope with the world, and themselves, in the aftermath of the First World War.
IntroductionThey were an inseparable tribe of childhood friends whose world was torn apart by the First World War. Some were lost in battle, and those who survived have had their lives unimaginably upended, scattered to Ceylon and India, France and Germany, and, inevitably, back to Britain. Now, at the dawn of the 1920s, all are trying to pick up the pieces. At the center of Louis de Bernières’s riveting novel are Daniel, an RAF flying ace, and Rosie, a wartime nurse. As their marriage is slowly revealed to be built on lies, Daniel finds solace—and, sometimes, family—with other women, and Rosie draws her religion around herself like a carapace. Here too are Rosie’s sisters—a bohemian, a minister’s wife, and a spinster, each seeking purpose and happiness in her own unconventional way; and Daniel’s military brother, unable to find his footing in a peaceful world. Told in brief, dramatic chapters, So Much Life Left Over follows the stories of these old friends over the decades as their paths re-cross or their ties fray, as they test loyalties and love, face survivor’s grief and guilt, and adjust to a new world.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The dedication to the novel is to the author’s grandparents with the added phrase “who tried to start a new life in Ceylon.” Does knowing that the novel is loosely based on the author’s family affect your reading of the story?
2. The novel is told in brief, episodic chapters (50 in total) with various voices and numerous letters rather than one continuous chronological story. How does this add to the experience of reading the novel?
3. Is the legacy of WWI different for the male and female characters in the book?
4. How are both Archie and Rosie, in very different ways, unable to fully recover and move on with their lives after WWI? About Archie, the narrator says, “There is nothing more soul destroying for a valiant old soldier than to live inside a crippling sense of uselessness” (p. 314). Why is Daniel able to move on, as opposed to his wife and brother?
5. Discuss Rosie and Daniel’s relationship. Why are they both unhappy and unfulfilled in their marriage? What power do they have over the other and how do they exert it?
6. How does the trauma of their baby being born deformed and dying soon after affect Rosie and Daniel similarly and differently?
7. If you’ve read de Bernières’s earlier novel, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, how have the various characters grown and how have they stayed the same from that book to this one? How has the war affected the characters and how have they moved on?
8. How is setting a character in the novel? How does the English countryside with its large houses and gardens contrast with the Ceylon landscape with its tea plantations and colonial houses and surrounding workers’ huts?
9. Discuss the role of technology and the changing and new machines that emerged during and after the war. How have motorcycles, cars, and airplanes changed the lives of the characters and society in the novel?
10. How is So Much Life Left Over a book about marriages, families, and family secrets? Discuss the various marriages represented in the book, and how family secrets affect them.
11. Should Daniel and Rosie divorce? Would they both be better off apart? Should Rosie have married Archie instead? Would either Rosie or Archie have been healthier? Should Rosie have remained single after her beloved died in the war?
12. How do Daniel and Rosie try to salvage their marriage? Or don’t they? With whom do you think the author sympathizes? With whom do you, as the reader, sympathize? Why?
13. Why does Rosie read and destroy Daniel’s letter from Ceylon rather than share it with him? Is her betrayal justified?
14. How did coming-of-age during the war affect these characters—their interests, their personalities, their relationships, and lives?
15. How does Daniel deal with his depression and suicidal thoughts?
16. What does Rosie mean when she says, “Inside one person there are so many different people, and quite often they’re at war with each other . . . We’re all so hard to understand, aren’t we” (p. 132)? Do you agree with this? What does this quote say about Rosie?
17. Describe the differences between Rosie’s parents’ generation and the characteristics of Rosie’s generation. Why does Rosie’s mother put up with her husband’s rampant philandering? Or do you think she didn’t know or care about it? Are appearances the only thing she cares about?
18. What is the general stance on religion in the novel? Discuss one character’s assessment that “Theology is the feeble wisdom of those who are terrified of mystery” (p. 307).
19. And Daniel’s view on religion and life: “If you have no faith, there is no meaning in anything unless you put it there yourself” (p. 325).
20. What is the book saying about empire and colonialism? There’s a line from Gaskell about how her family became so wealthy—“It was the good old golden triangle . . . My wonderful house and my fabulous estate are all the fruit of untold family misery” (p. 159). At a time when the British Empire was starting to collapse the country still had a presence in many places around the world. Why is Archie in the Middle East and Daniel in South Asia?
21. “There is a kind of man who, having been at war, finds peacetime intolerable . . . he hates the feeling that what he is doing is not important” (p. 6). Discuss this quote from the beginning of the novel and how it relates to the novel as a whole.
22. What did you think of the ending of So Much Life Left Over?