The reviewer, a reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post, is the author of "The Violet Dots."
This is bad writing on a grand scale. It will be a great success.
The final volume of a trilogy called "Loss of Eden," it pursues its huge cast through the last year of World War I and beyond, showing how Britain's class system was shaken up (though not destroyed by any means), a subject already covered brilliantly in Ford Madox Ford's monumental tetralogy, "Parade's End."
But "By the Green of the Spring" is no "Parade's End." After nearly 600 pages we are no deeper into the puppetlike characters than we were at the beginning. It's not for lack of incident: In the first 10 pages we learn that upper-class Stella has disappeared, is a heroin addict and prostitute and is pregnant with a black child; Aunt Alice has lost a leg in a factory explosion, taken a lover, conquered a morphine addiction and is intermediary in a secret correspondence between her nephew the British air ace and the top German ace; Margaret has left her husband to become a bomb-thrower with the Irish rebels, and Lord Swanwick has sold his estate to a greengrocer.
It goes on from there. You lose count of the women who had babies by men who weren't their husbands, all the more remarkable because there is almost no sex in the book. In fact, for all the action and the compulsive prattle, Masters shortchanges us on some really important scenes. For example, when Stella's husband John finally sees her again, with her black baby, rescued from the sinks of London after being missing for a year, it's as if she had just been in the next room. "Let's sit down, darling," he says. She sits down, and they immediately start talking about when they can move into the cottage and about his job. It's as heavily trivial as a daytime TV soap opera.
The whole narrative -- but especially the dialogue -- is lumpy with undigested exposition. During the 1918 German advance, someone says, inevitably, "Do you realize this is the end of trench warfare, Campbell?" (As Leonardo would say, "Hey Michelangelo, has the High Renaissance begun yet?") In the middle of a wild aerial dogfight, told in stream-of-consciousness fashion: "Ah, shiny metal, Junkers C.L. 1's, the first aircraft of all metal construction, fast, maneuverable, very hard to knock down, heavily armed, two machine guns forward and one on a ring for the observer, firing backwards."
The author can't resist using all his research notes. Officer to soldier in the trench:
"What are you loaded with?"
"One in five tracer, sir . . . standard for night."
Those are the author's dots. He sprays them everywhere.
Sometimes the overwritten sentences trip themselves up: "The leaves were beginning to turn on the trees." Is he saying that the leaves are attacking the trees? Or did he think we had to be told that leaves reside on trees? So simple to say, "The leaves were turning."
Speaking of overwriting: You never saw so many stiff-lipped Brits pouring out their innermost thoughts to strangers. How about a naval officer who casually lets drop to a colleague he's meeting for the first time that he is a homosexual? In 1918? Or an aristocratic Prussian woman meeting the British flier who has shot down her husband: " 'Guy . . .Wait . . . Don't move . . . Oh!' She burst into tears and stumbled toward him, her hands outstretched." People just don't act that way.
Or this: "I love him . . . I am totally, blindingly in love with him . . . as far as I know. I was when we last met. I still am, I think . . . but there was the war . . . death . . . he in the middle of it . . . I waiting, waiting. Would I ever see him again?" and so on. People don't talk that way, either.
The amazing thing is that you keep reading. Masters, after all, is an old pro, with 23 other books behind him, including "Bhowani Junction," which was made into a movie. He knows how to set a scene, even if it does creak with the telltale stiffness of something inspired by an old photograph or memoir. His action passages move right along, though they lack the nightmare reality of Ford Madox Ford's trench warfare, which puts you actually there, in the mud, with the maddening noise and the fear and the shock of a man you know suddenly turning into a body that falls on you and the blood everywhere, gleaming in the firelight so that it seems to move, running up your sleeves, making your fingers stick together.
Masters holds the interest through sheer quantity of incident. The plot never quits, and you do work up some curiosity about what will happen to whom. But there is no passion here for the reader, no one you will fall in love with, or despise, or even remember. In a word, Masters hasn't written so much a novel as a demonstration of a thesis, a rather familiar thesis at that. His characters move on tracks, their personalities already preset, as they exemplify the various economic, political and social changes that the war brought to Britain and America. No doubt it is carping to point out that, if the purpose was to demonstrate the war's effects, the book should have carried on to 1926 and the General Strike.
But that would have meant seven more years' worth of vapid dialogue and rote plotting. Would the readers stand for it? Would they keep reading? Probably, probably.