Strengths: Great plot twists, very witty.
Weaknesses: Some of the plot twists are on the borders of disbelief.
Why I read it: I love Popular Penguins!
Published: 1934 (this version, 2008)
Setting: England and other unexpected places
Rating: 9 out of 10
If you liked this, try: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
I really love the Popular Penguin series – what’s not to love about cute orange covers, penguins and the nice price of $9.95 AU? I had never read a Waugh book before (shame I know) so I picked up this one to give him (yes, him) a try. As soon as I finished A Handful of Dust I rushed out to buy all the other Waugh Popular Penguins. He is that good. The prose is excellent, the dialogue witty and the man knows how to pack a narrative punch that will have you gasping at the twist.
A Handful of Dust is the story of Brenda and Tony, who live in a cold and drafty country house. They appear to have a warm and easygoing relationship, but Brenda is somewhat bored of being buried in a Gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere. With a little egging on from her friends, she begins an affair with the social climber John Beaver. What is meant to be a bit of fun has some disastrous consequences and will eventually push Tony and Brenda far apart.
One of the initial plot twists that drives Tony and Brenda further apart was certainly unexpected, but handled brilliantly by Waugh in terms of different reactions and emotions. Later on in the book, the casual way Tony is set up for an affair shows the morals of this group of people in a very interesting (and unexpected for me!) light. The later plot twist is certainly extreme and I defy anyone to predict the change of setting – but what else would you have had Tony do? The ending certainly leaves food for thought too and makes you wonder at the intentions of the players after all.
Despite this being published in 1934, I found this a very easy read. It was so gripping that I would read at my desk right up to my start work time, in traffic and while walking! I’d certainly recommend this as an introduction to Waugh, although be prepared for serious issues to be dealt with in a rather offhand way at times. Ironic and great.