How is it September already?
Who wouldn’t love a big old country house with the echoes of old, dark deeds and long-buried secrets? I’m very much in the majority. I read two novels in this growing genre in the month of August, and both I would recommend to those looking for a bout of escapism.
First, to The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. I’d recommend reading this with a mug of cocoa and a cosy fire on a winter’s night; just like Margaret Lea swallows book after book. Margaret is a bookseller’s daughter, a woman with a colourless, supressed outer life, pouring all her inner vitality into books. She has done some biographies of obscure, long-forgotten figures, and this is enough to to draw the attention of Vida Winter, a reclusive writer, who wants her story told.
Only problem is that Vida is a known liar who has told journalists dozens of different versions of her life-story down through the years. So what has changed now, and how can Margaret trust her? Margaret has her own secrets and issues, too, which she is forced to confront as Vida’s tale comes to light.
What unfolds at Vida’s plush, over-furnished mansion in Yorkshire is a tale of madness and neglect. Twins at the Angelfield, Vida’s childhood home, Emmeline and Adeline, are strange, red-headed children who frighten the villagers and are studied by outsiders. The ultimate taboo of incest has become a favourite of many contemporary writers and to be frank, if I read one more story where the heroine (unbeknownst to herself, of course) has it off with her half-brother, I’ll scream. However, the strangeness of the relationship between the twins’ mother and their uncle Charlie is painted in delicate brushstrokes, making it even more sinister. The story of Angelfield is wonderfully creepy and reminded me forcefully of the Gaunts in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where suffering, neglect and despair were drawn with power and skill.
The Thirteenth Tale is undoubtedly a book for readers. Throughout, Setterfield treats us to gorgeous passages about the joy of reading. Take this:
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”
Setterfield knows all about the warmth of a good book and here she has created one to get really stuck into. Fans of Victorian literature will also find much to enjoy. Jane Eyre, Margaret’s favourite book (and one of mine too) is referenced here frequently; from the madness hidden away to the sensible young governess up against a house she cannot begin to understand. So too is another Brontë sister’s work; Emily’s Wuthering Heights, in the nest-like structure (Mr Lockwood tells the story of Nelly Dean who in turn tells the story of the Earnshaws and Heathcliff), the Yorkshire setting, the crazed connection between Isabelle and Charlie. Finally, there are hints of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw in the character of governess Hester Barrow, who thinks she sees ghosts around Angelfield, even though, as a woman of science, she knows it’s impossible. Hester herself dismisses James as knowing “very little about children and nothing at all about governesses”.
The book is far from perfect, and the final twist has a measure of implausibility that even the Victorians would have had a hard time swallowing. And it’s real pity that Setterfield only gives us a taste of the eponymous thirteenth tale. However, it’s a good read, and a BBC adaptation is reportedly on the way.
Far less Gothic is Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton. Grace, 98, is interviewed for an upcoming film about the shocking events at Riverton House in 1924. Poet Robbie Hunter kills himself in front of the two sisters of the house, Hannah and Emmeline. But what does Grace, Hannah’s lady’s maid, know about the death? And will she finally relieve herself of the secret she has carried for over 70 years?
The House at Riverton is a perfect summer read, especially for any fans of period dramas like Downton Abbey. While The Thirteenth Tale takes place in a historical vacuum, Morton’s novel is dominated by World War One. It’s easy to forget how much this war changed things in Europe, and every man in the novel emerges from the conflict changed, scarred, ashamed or dead. The book was written in 1999, but reading it would make a timely reminder of the scandalous waste of life ahead of the war’s 100th anniversary in 2014.
To Morton’s credit she does not lecture or moralise on this. It’s handled delicately, and it never overshadows the inner lives of Grace, Emmeline and Hannah. For the sisters and the maid are connected in greater ways then they realise, and their fates become intertwined.
A big, old-fashioned novel set against a turbulent historical backdrop, The House of Riverton is another enjoyable read.
Finally, it took me a couple of months to finish The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, and I don’t really know why, as it was a highly enjoyable book. Just as WW1 dominates The House at Riverton, World War Two dominates this book. WW2 has been a rich seam for writers, and we’ve read just about everything from fiction set in the death camps of the Nazis to alternative accounts where the Axis crossed the channel. But one area which is, to my knowledge, neglected, is the reaction of the Jewish population of America to the events in Europe. Even Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds had a Jewish squadron taking out Nazis, but what must it have been like to live daily life in America while confusing and worrying reports of ghettos, camps and deaths filtered through?
Josef Kavalier is a Czech Jew who escapes to America just before things get really bad. He does this in an extraordinary way; hiding in the coffin of the legendary Golem of Prague. But this is nothing new for Josef; he’s been studying magic for years and is especially good a picking locks. When he gets to America he stays with his aunt and young cousin, Sammy. Sammy and Josef (who quickly becomes Joe) are soon firm friends, bonded over their love of comic books and drawing. Soon they have come up with their own superhero- The Escapist- and under the stewardship of the sly Sheldon Anapol of Empire Comics.
Joe falls in love with New York and the sparky Rosa Saks, herself an artist, but never gives up on trying to rescue his family back in Prague. Hotheaded and frustrated, Joe begins a one-man campaign against the Nazis in New York, attacking the pathetic Carl Ebling of the one-man Aryan-American League, and having The Escapist beat up Hitler at every opportunity.
Chabon is wonderful writer who captures the unflappable attitude of America before Pearl Harbor: “… The general mentality of the New Yorker was not one of siege of, panic or grim resignation to fate, but rather the toe-wiggling, tea-sipping contentment of a woman curled on a sofa, reading in front of the fire with cold rain rattling against the windows.” Then comes the day of infamy and all changes.
Personally, I think the novel would have been stronger with more of focus on Joe. His adventures are amazing; poor Sammy’s less so. His big secret is not that shocking, and it would have been far more interesting to read about Joe’s post-army experiences than Sammy’s carefully contrived domesticity. Some of the comic book stuff went over my head too; not being a huge fan of comics or graphic novels. However, it’s a witty, warm novel. The themes of magic and escape imbue the story with a sense of wonder and joy.
Until next months, fellow readers!