This Real Night by Rebecca West (Viking: $16.95; 266 pp.)
"This Real Night" is the story of the Aubrey family in London just before the Great War. They are a "broken" family in that the husband and father--never referred to by name--has both scandalously and mysteriously left his wife and four children. The family is "mended," however, by its passionate love for life and its stubborn refusal to think of the missing father figure with anything other than respect for his judgment, however inexplicable.
The narrator, Rose, is like a Greek chorus commenting on the alternately tragical and comical aspects of Theban life. Rose and her twin sister Mary are concert pianists like their mother, nee Clare Keith, a renowned artist of her day personally congratulated by Brahms. The other members of the family include the maddeningly self-centered elder sister Cordelia, the irresistible brother known always by both his given names, Richard Quin, and the calm, reliable cousin, Rosamund. The proximity of the young people's ages gives them license to be utterly free with one another, and their simple but astute day-to-day interaction composes the major portion of the book.
Perhaps it is this childlike overview that allows the author to make lavish use of her gift for metaphor and simile. Children, especially in describing something to a grown-up, frequently liken their subject to something tangible. This Rebecca West intended "This Real Night" as the second volume in her trilogy "The Fountain Overflows." We are told in the foreword that it was written over a long period of time and revised shortly before the author's death in 1983 at age 90. If this information is correct, then it would go a long way toward explaining the sensitivity of the last part of the novel, which deals with the death of the mother, Clare. The acceptance of death and yet the enormity and irrevocability of it are major themes in this work. Rose displays a remarkable understanding for one so young when she states, "Existence was about to split into two, and Mamma was to be on one side of an abyss and the rest of us on the other." But it is a line from Mr. Morpurgo, Clare's steadfast friend and decorous admirer, which most touches my sensibility of the death of a cherished friend:
"All my life I have been frightened of some-
thing that was going to happen to me, and I
never knew what it was. It is this."