A rollicking 4.5 out of 5
I’m probably being overgenerous with the stars, but damn I loved this. I was in the perfect mood. I’ve had this feeling lately as I read that I’m reading to a list or set of predetermined factors, like someone is looking over my shoulder and marking my reading for its depth and validity. I decided that is just stupid and it’s ok to read for pleasure and delight. Nothing gives me more pleasure or delight than an English country house, preferably before both wars, you know, the big ones, and if that house should be rambling or falling down, or have a pall hanging over it, so much the better!
Such is the case with Sterne house.As for the setting of this, I am not sure what time it was. It was in the early days of the phone, there are some motorcars around but leaving them in the rain is not recommended, as they won’t start. There is no mention of rationing, so it’s possible it’s before WWI. The house is inhabited by a blended family, the bulk of which are the Torringtons: the children, Clovis (eldest male), Emerald (celebrating her 20th birthday when we begin the story), and the littlest, Smudge, or Imogen, a strange fairy child who flits around the house like an oft-forgotten ghost. Their mama is Charlotte, and she is often in disfavor with her children for re-marrying, and very quickly, after their beloved father’s death. Their stepfather, Edward Swift, is a likable, kind man, a lawyer, a man who loves their mother. He gets nothing but sass from the spoiled children. To be honest, I was rather disappointed with that aspect of their behavior.
Anyway, about the pall. When we meet our household, money troubles are about to cost them their house. It was bought by their father early in his marriage when he had a burst of commercial success. Unfortunately, that success was not repeated, and before he died he was deep in debt. It is Emerald’s birthday but her stepfather has to go and see a money lender, a rather foul one, but it is their last chance to try and save the estate. The kids aren’t exactly bothered about him being gone but they desperately want to remain in their home.
A birthday dinner is planned and the family is expecting Emerald’s childhood friend, Patience Sutton and her mother. Emerald’s mother, Charlotte, is scornful of Patience. She is studying history (her own daughter is also bookish and had only given up her studies to try and fit her mother’s idea of finding a husband, preferably a rich one. Charlotte is also angry that Patience’s mother has claimed to be sick and sent her “odd” son Ernest in her place. The families haven’t seen each other in a long time, and Emerald is astonished at Ernest’s change. He is no longer the squinty runt of a kid, but a manly man, whose grown into his height and whose carrot red hair has grown darker. (What is with the ginger hate, anyway? It’s especially strong in England and there are lots of gingers in Ireland and Scotland.) Anyway. On a whim, Emerald invites a successful local man, John Buchanan, and who Charlotte hopes has matrimonial designs on Emerald. However, when the Suttons come, shaky and frightened, they bring news that there has been a terrible derailment, not of Patience’s train but another. The grooms and Clovis are in an uproar because they have been told that they must put up the survivors until the railway can come and get them. No sooner do the grooms take off with the cart then here comes a ragged band of passengers.
There’s a lot going on, obviously. A birthday party, a maid sick so the house is short-staffed, the fear of what will happen with the house, the wreck, the dynamic between the characters. And I really enjoyed the characters. Clovis is a sulky, lazy bastard (not literally) and plays the part of the spoiled elder son consistently. Patience is a cheerful ray of sunshine. Emerald is smart and thoughtful. She takes care of a lot of things in the house and her little sister, Imogen (Smudge), who as I said, is often overlooked. Smudge is an absolute doll. She’s got a very artistic temperament, and having been left to herself, she has made her room a weird sort of artist’s studio, with engravings and outlines of the family animals ranging over her walls. The night of the party, she has planned her Great Undertaking. I won’t spoil it for you but it was one of the best parts of the book. Then there is Charlotte, their young and dissipated mother. This is the only place I felt the author failed me, as I could not get a handle on her. Very mindful of her place (sure that Patience’s mother has snubbed her because of their money problems) madame often retires to her chambers and leaves her children to deal with things, even the hordes of strangers descending on the house, ill prepared and short staffed. She is very lady of the manor one moment, kind and gentle with Smudge, and then dismissive and unkind the next. I just couldn’t get a feel for her. I did not like her.
There are aspects of the novel that are unusual. The first are the passengers. They appear out of nowhere, as if summoned by an ill wind that hits Emerald in the back. They seem mute, startled, formless. They are taken in by Emerald and Clovis and treated kind of like Smudge. Emerald does her best to be kind but allows them to be shuttled into a room and forgotten about. Each time they are encountered, en masse, no names are ever given, no leaders emerge, and their numbers seem to have increased. At first there were 15 or so then 20 then 30. They can’t get hold of the railway to find out how or when the passengers will be rescued. Sometimes, they emerge tentatively from their hole (the drawing room) and have to be rounded up and stuffed back in. They are grudgingly given tea. As time goes by, they get louder, they dare to come out more and struggle more on being put away. They demand answers that no one can give them. I just thought it was weird. They were like children or babies unable to do more than bleat for food when they were hungry and mess themselves where they were when no toilet was offered.
A final passenger arrives later in the evening, but he is very different. Clearly a first class passenger, I suddenly became aware the previous huddled mass must be third class, and that is most likely why they were treated as they were. But this Charlie with the weird last hyphenated name that seems to be said differently every time we meet him, is no gentleman. He’s loud, crass, he pretends to work on behalf of the passengers (in front of them) but encourages leaving them to their own devices when alone with the family. Clovis takes to him right away. I just loathed this guy. And there was a lot to loathe. He riles the family and their guests into crazy, even cruel behavior. He brings out the worst in everyone. He drops a huge truth-bomb on the family and does it with great gusto. The most mysterious parts of the novel are around him. There are some things that I’m not entirely sure how they went down… I would almost call it magical realism-ish. But I can’t approach those things without major spoilers. You’ll just have to read it and make up your own mind. And I strongly recommend it.
And yes, I made tea just to take that photo and I didn’t even use the tea pot. I used my IngenuiTEA which is the savior of my life. Get some Vanilla Roobios. And thank me.
Ok everyone – Happy reading.