Saturday, January 16, 2010
The House at Riverton is a gorgeous debut novel set in England between the wars. It is the story of an aristocratic family, a house, a mysterious death and a way of life that vanished forever, told in flashback by a woman who witnessed it all and kept a secret for decades.
Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline.
In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they - and Grace - know the truth.
In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace's youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever.
The novel is full of secrets - some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history.
The House at Riverton is a vivid, page-turning novel of suspense and passion, with characters - and an ending - the reader won't soon forget.
In case you were wondering, I wanted to clear up some confusion over the title of this book. Ms. Morton, the author, is Australian and the book's name was published in Australia as The Shifting Fog, though in the UK and the US, the book was published as The House at Riverton, which is the name I prefer. The audiobook version, which I listened to is called The Shifting Fog, with this particular cover to it, a cover I prefer. So I'm titling my review The House at Riverton, but using The Shifting Fog's cover. Got it?
Okay, let's get onto the review.
Did you ever watch the BBC television series from the 1970's called Upstairs Downstairs? It was very popular then and we used to watch it on Masterpiece Theatre Sunday nights when I was growing up. My grandmother was a particular fan. I remember the show vividly, and throughout the entire time I was reading The House at Riverton I remembered much of Upstairs Downstairs and couldn't help but compare the two. Not only are they similar because they center on the servant's point of view and their employers who are well to do Londoners, but both stories are set during the same time period - Edwardian England up to the mid 1920's.
Our central character and narrator of the story is Grace Bradley, who takes us back to her childhood when she began work at Riverton House, a large English country estate. A young girl of fourteen, she starts out as a maid and over the course of ten years, she works her way up to becoming a lady's maid for the eldest of the two daughters of the house, Hannah and Emmeline Hartford. Grace develops a great sense of duty towards servicing Hannah, to the point where she makes personal sacrifices in her life to remain with Hannah as her maid. She considers it an honor and strives to do her best. In this regard, Remains of the Day, another story about the servant class in England comes to mind. As the invisibe servant of the household, Grace witnesses the many tragedies that occur at Riverton House and she learns of it's many secrets which are revealed one by one over the course of the story.
I was surprised at the beginning of the story, knowing nothing of the actual plotline before listening to the book. It starts out as if you are reading a movie script. We soon learn that a movie is indeed being made about the Hartford sisters and R.L. Hunter the poet who kills himself by the lake at Riverton during a large party in 1924. I believed this book was going to be some sort of love story between Robbie and one of the sisters, but it was much more than that. This is Grace's life, working for the Hartfords, learning and keeping their secrets in silence, and bearing witness to the great events of the day, World War I and it's effects and aftermath to the household and society in general. It signals the end of an era before the onset of the roaring 20's. We see the two girls mature and grow up, though it's really Hannah who we get close to, this is Hannah and Grace's story.
An eldery woman, nearly one hundred years old, Grace tells her tale in flashbacks, interspersed with her current life in a nursing home. She is relatively healthy, though understandably frail, yet still sharp enough to recall working and living at Riverton and the events that led up to the death of Robbie Hunter. Often, she alludes to a great mystery of what really happened that night. Whatever it was, it is not the version that the movie is depicting. No one knows the secret except Grace. This was one of the most compelling things about the book - what really happened that night?
I loved all of it and ate it up like candy. I love these kind of books that are fiction yet use real life events as the anchors around the story. Plus, the period is fascinating to me, and the actual structure of the book and each revelation was like removing a layer, finally getting to the bottom as the last layer is removed and we learn the secret. It was very well done. Grace was endearing, I loved her at any age and I looked forward to listening to her voice as her story and life unfolded. The other characters in the book were not as vivid as Grace's, but there was enough development in them to feel like you knew them and their types. The many secrets and twists, some poignant, some sad or even bitter, further enhanced the story and setting. It was evocative and thoughful all the way up to the surprise ending. Just when you think you've figured it out, you realize it's not what you think at all.
I wholeheartedly recommend this if you enjoy books about the servant class and the aristocracy. I most certainly do. The narration by Caroline Lee, an Australian actress, was superb. I loved her characterization of Grace, plus I simply loved her voice and Australian accent, of which I didn't even realize was Australian at first, it's subtle and sweet and delicate - perfect. Her American accents were just right too - annoying and flat sounding compared to everyone else. Definitely gives you the sense of the ugly Americans of that era. All business and new money. Her voice for the butler and cook were spot on, and I loved the voice she used for Emmeline as well.
Give it a try, I hope you like it as much as I did. A real treat - and unexpected as well!