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Clare Clark’s new novel, We That are Left (Harvill Secker £16.99), starts with the closing days of the First World War. Oscar Grunewald, the son of a German composer, spends much of his childhood in an English country house. When the heir is killed at the front, Oscar finds himself further enmeshed in the lives of the sisters left behind; clever Phyllis and spiteful, beautiful Jessica.

Oscar is a scientist entranced by Einstein. Phyllis is liberated by destroyed conventions. Jessica is initially unsympathetic, but as her small dreams of a conventional, shining youth are slowly shattered, our compassion for her grows.

This is an ambitious book; modernity is at war with the past, science, and women, are on the march. At times, Clark’s drive for thematic richness can overwhelm the plot and the characters. Ellinghust, the country house, is a crumbling and symbol of the past. But Ellinghurst’s turrets and towers are themselves a fake Victorian pastiche. It’s all a little heavy-handed. But this is a wonderful, absorbing read nonetheless.

 

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