I love sinking into the fully-dimensional world of a multi-volume set of novels. Proust's were amazing, and I've relished those of A.S. Byatt, T.R. Pearson, Pat Barker, and Olivia Manning.
So when I was offered a review copy of Crossing the Lines, the third book in Melvyn Bragg's quartet (including the fourth, largely autobiographical Remember Me), I bought and read the first two volumes: The Soldier's Return, and Son of War, reprinted in the United States by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.
Bragg's series doesn't quite have the easy seductiveness of TV's Downton Abbey. But it's much deeper psychologically. Packed with themes of alienation, mental strain, incipient breakdown, young love and mature love, the trilogy offers the richly textured feel of life in a small town in northern England after the Second World War. Wigton is actually the real place Bragg came from. We feel, with Bragg and his characters, the town's flaws as well as its drawing power. In each volume, we experience the push-pull of wanting to be connected to one's small town origins while craving to escape to discover one's wider options.
I wondered about Bragg's unusually deep description of how it feels to suppose you're losing your self and going mad. The author has said that he had a couple of mental breakdowns himself, one as an adolescent, and so these parts of the story ring true.
In this third volume, Crossing the Lines, we see Oxford through eyes of a still-innocent teenager. We also get to know better those who love him and recognize his intelligence and immaturity. Romance doesn't necessarily win out here. Rather, Bragg depicts the necessity of compromise in lives limited by poverty and class.
Bragg may not be a familiar name in the U.S., though he's very well known in England for his writing and contributions to broadcasting (he was presenter and editor for the 32-year run of The South Bank Show on ITV). If you enjoy getting to know the characters you read about really well, try this beautifully written set of novels.
Here is an enlightening "author's statement" Bragg made on this site:
I began writing fiction when I was about 19 and have done so ever since. In brief it is the most testing and satisfying work that I do. I like everything about it -- the shape, discovering the story, working out the narrator and the characters, dealing with Time, finding the centre of a scene, trying to make the book pass through and partake in an historical period without gathering too much period moss. I even consider a day spent facing an empty page a good day.
Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry