Every now and then, I like to pretend I’m an old English chap, open fireplace, pipe and all, and as such, I cater my reading material to match.  Thus, this is how I ended up reading Evelyn Waugh’s satiric novel, A Handful of Dust.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that I feared my brain had turned to mush after reading a very average 21st century chick lit, or perhaps I hoped I would enjoy it as much as his other books, I’m not sure.  Either way, while I was a bit disappointed by the novel, I was more disappointed that it disappointed me.  I’ll explain.

Set in the 1930s, A Handful of Dust revolves around the breakdown of the marriage between Tony and Brenda Last.  Essentially, Tony is absorbed by the maintenance of his terrifically old, ugly and terribly expensive family home, while Brenda wants to have fun and have the attention on herself.  So, she starts an affair with John Beaver, whom on top of having an unfortunate last name, apparently doesn’t have even a brain or a dime to put to it.

When the Last’s son, John Andrew, dies in a hunting accident, Brenda declares that she wants a divorce so she can run off with John Beaver (who remember, has no money), but expects that Tony will still support her until her death.  In response, Tony, who believes that Brenda has behaved shockingly, gives her the proverbial finger (and rightly so) and sets off for an adventure in the middle of nowhere.

A Handful of Dust is a satirical novel that essentially pokes fun at the middle-class and has a laugh and I agree that Waugh created numerous images that made me inwardly chuckle.  Whether it was the idea of Tony Last, a very white, very English, very middle-class man trying to ‘find himself’ in the middle of Brazil, or that Brenda had reasoned herself to receive the majority of Last’s income, Waugh created the scene delicately and entertainingly.  In particular, his numerous scenes of the English nightlife, where it was completely acceptable to cheat on your husband as long as you did it with good manners, set the overall tone for the novel; which was essentially Waugh mocking his own ilk.

Yet, while I appreciated his superb writing, his character development and his story arches, I still wasn’t completely able to get into the storyline.  I understood that what he was writing was satirical, witty and quietly funny – yet I didn’t really laugh all that much.  I recognised the puns and the word play (the Last’s that ended up divorced, which led her to a Beaver?), yet it didn’t encourage me to keep reading.  In short, though I know I SHOULD have enjoyed this book more than I did, I just didn’t.

I just hope all those American television shows aren’t starting to rot my brain and erode my dry sense of humour.

If you’re a fan of English literature, you have a dry wit, or you’re quite well-read, then I would recommend A Handful of Dust, because overall, I cannot fault Waugh’s writing abilities.  However, if you need something less subtle, or you don’t particularly understand the finer details of English humour, then I’d suggest something else.

Have you read A Handful of Dust or anything by Evelyn Waugh?  Are you a fan of English humour?  Let me know!

a handful of dust by evelyn waugh

A Handful of Dust – (image taken from http://www.imagesbn.com)