The Valley of Bones is the seventh book in Anthony Powell’s epic twelve novel sequence. With this novel, Powell leaves behind the familiar London streets, the society of large houses and clubs that in the previous six novels we spent so much time. War has come to Europe, and changed everything for many people. As the novel opens in 1940 we find Nicholas Jenkins a Second Lieutenant in Wales. Here we are introduced to a host of new characters including Jenkins’ commanding officer Captain Gwatkin and the alcoholic Lieutenant Bithel. Bithel is a particularly brilliantly drawn character, a figure whose totally inaccurate reputation has apparently preceded him, and to which Bithel himself cannot possibly live up to. Jenkins – considered to be getting on a bit in his mid-thirties, undergoes training in Wales, and along with his battalion colleagues endures the tedium of army life while waiting for military operations to begin. Powell portrays the everyday minutiae of army life, the pranks and squabbles that only momentarily distract these men forced to suddenly live together. This is a different kind of world for Jenkins, and one he manages to fit himself into rather well.
“I indicated that I wrote for the papers, not mentioning books because, if not specifically in your line, authorship is an embarrassing subject for all concerned. Besides, it never sounds like a serious occupation. Up to that moment, no one had pressed inquiries further than that, satisfied that journalism was a known form of keeping body and soul together, even if an esoteric one.”
Jenkins’ battalion is moved to Castlemallock in Ireland, where Captain Gwatkin makes a mistake during an exercise, and there’s an inspection by an absurdly young General Liddament who is hilariously more concerned with whether the men have had porridge for breakfast than with much else. Jenkins is sent to Aldershot to a training course, on route to the course, Nick meets and becomes friendly with David Pennistone – who he vaguely recognises from years earlier. At Aldershot Jenkins meets Odo Stevens, and Jimmy Brent – another figure from the past. Rather uncomfortably Jenkins is required to listen to Brent’s account of his affair with Jean Templer, in a scene reminiscent of a similar one between Jenkins and Duport in The Kindly Ones.
“Even when you have ceased to love someone, that does not necessarily bring an indifference to a past shared together. Besides, though love may die, vanity lives on timelessly. I knew that I must be prepared to hear things I should not like. Yet, although where unfaithfulness reigns, ignorance may be preferable to knowledge, at the same time, once knowledge is brutally born, exactitude is preferable to uncertainty.”
It is Odo Stevens who gives Jenkins a lift to the house of his sister in law Frederica Budd, where Nick’s heavily pregnant wife Isabel is staying. Here Nick is to spend the weekend before heading back to Ireland. Robert Tolland and Priscilla are also staying, and Stevens manages to make something of an impression on Priscilla. At Frederica’s house Jenkins meets other familiar faces, including Umfraville, and Buster who pitches up just as Robert receives news his leave has been cancelled.
Back in Ireland, Nick finds that Gwatkin has fallen for the charms of a local barmaid, who doesn’t appear to return his feelings. There is also something of a running battle going on between Bithel and Gwatkin – who is soon replaced. Jenkins is ordered to report to headquarters to meet the DAAG (a military acronym that remains meaningless to me) who naturally turns out to be an old friend.
As always I enjoyed my monthly portion of Anthony Powell, however of the seven I have read so far this is the one I liked least. Powell’s world is one I enjoy reading about, his writing is really excellent, the characterisation complex and endlessly fascinating. However all those new characters at the beginning, and the change of place unsettled me more than I had expected, mirroring perhaps the unsettling nature of the changes brought to people by the war. At the same time I am looking forward to discovering what will be next for Nick Jenkins and his friends, and now I have met these new characters at least they will be familiar should I encounter them again. I really found myself missing those familiar old London haunts of the previous novels. Powell remains endlessly readable however, and my reading of this novel may well have been affected by my extreme tiredness, which makes remembering new characters more of a challenge.