Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Book review: The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton

Maxx sensed my frustrations a few weeks ago when I was becoming restless with my bookshelves. I wanted to read something different, so tasked Maxx with buying me ‘something I wouldn’t normally read or choose for myself’ (I didn’t command he buy books for me, by the way, he offered). This was not an easy task, even if I am open to reading lots of different genres.

I believe Maxx’s mission was successful (although, given he’d just kindly spent about £20 on things for me, it wouldn’t have mattered what he bought!). I reviewed one of the books last week, The Winter Folly, and now I’ll review the second!

The House at Riverton

Kate Morton has many fans. I can’t call myself one yet as I’ve only read one of her novels, but I am definitely interested in reading more of her work. The book itself is attractive, with a beautiful photograph of a summer garden behind a gate decorating the cover – whoever chose that picked a winner, as it immediately made me want to read the story!

The House at Riverton was a prime example of women’s fiction gone right. It touches on many topics, including memory, loss, family, war, love, aging and class difference, through the eyes of Grace Bradley, a housemaid at Riverton.

Ultimately, I think this novel is about secrets: Hannah likes to keep them, Grace is forced to keep them, and Emmeline is excluded from them. Trivial secrets, such as the children’s role playing game, come to have greater significance throughout the novel – but because of what they represent, rather than what they are. After David, Hannah and Emmeline’s brother, is killed in WWI, Hannah keeps one of their childhood stories in a locket but tells Emmeline she buried all of them.

While the idea of a secret changing the entire outcome of a novel is not new, one of the aspects I liked most about The House at Riverton was how one tiny, seemingly forgettable detail was the one that changed the course of the story. Instead of a dramatic revelation, the truth comes out quietly, almost unnoticeably. By then, however, Hannah’s world has been upturned, but instead of an explosive confrontation, it is her subtlety which makes the ending so much sadder.

Switching between a character’s past and present is also a common technique, however I felt Morton successfully wrote Grace both as a young girl and a very old woman. She captured the place between sleeping and wakefulness that Grace experiences in her old age, when the lines between them are blurred.

As a character, Grace was thoroughly likeable - her devotion to Hannah was admirable rather than pathetic, showing her as loyal and steadfast even in the most dangerous circumstances. This steadiness was reflected in her old age, with her determination to visit Riverton one last time.

Emmeline, Hannah’s younger sister, was a troubled character; while it would have been easy to label her as shallow, she lost her brother in the War and her sister to a husband who took her away to London, all by the age of 16. She is excluded from memories of her brother through Hannah’s deception about the stories. Hannah becomes the love interest of both men Emmeline wishes to have a relationship with. While her adoration of Teddy and Robbie seem unrealistic, in a child’s mind they hold much more brevity. Her melodramatic actions at the fateful Riverton party reflect how lost she is, despite her apparent popularity and frivolous lifestyle. I can understand why readers might not feel sorry for this privileged young woman, as many others suffered the same losses from the War as she did while living in much harder circumstances, but I think this also serves as a leveller. Death did not discriminate across social classes during the War.

I would highly recommend this book. Unlike some women’s fiction, I found The House at Riverton refreshing and unpredictable.


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