Admit it — at least once you have allowed yourself, for just a moment, to imagine that you are the long-lost relative and only distant heir to a massive fortune. A letter or a phone call informs you that you stand to inherit a beautiful mansion in some exotic location. You only need prove your identity, your lineage. Would you leave your known life behind? Would you fulfill the requests of the estate?
The protagonist of this bracing new novel receives an urgent letter from a solicitor’s office in London, informing him of his potential inheritance. Having just graduated high school and unsure of his college plans, Tristan takes the lawyers up on their offer. His first trip to Europe is an unusual one to say the least. He begins to research his family’s past, following clues across the city, and even into other countries.
In the week before I went to London, I made a list of all the things I wanted to see in the city. By the time I got here there were thirty-two items. They were things I’d read about over the years: museums and palaces, but also pubs hundreds of years old; alleys with strange names, their passage so narrow that you could touch both sides as you walked; blue-plaqued townhouses once inhabited by spies or poets or prime ministers. ~Loc. 425
The narrative splits, letting the reader follow the lives of Tristan’s ancestors. Ashley Walsingham is an adventurer and mountain climber. In the years just before and after WWI, he scales some of the world’s most dangerous peaks. This, however, does not prepare him for the dreadful nature of what he endures in the trenches of France. It is climbing that made him sane. He attempts to explain it to Imogen Soames Anderson, the beautiful young woman he has met days before he is to leave for the front.
It’s something that one needs that isn’t essential. Something one wants for no good reason at all. Not an animal desire. A desire that comes not from one’s body, but from one’s soul.
— But why do you want it?
— I can’t explain it.
— You have been explaining it. Please go on.
Ashley looks at the tablecloth and shakes his head. He says that for one thing, lasting comfort becomes no comfort at all. All things in the world are perceptible only by contrast. For just as there is not hear without cold or light without darkness, it is climbing that throws all of Ashley’s life into sharp relief. It is climbing that makes one feel. It is the driving mountain cold that makes the fire in an alpine hut so delicious; it is the sore and cramped muscles that transform an ordinary hot bath into a sensory revelation; it is the hours of grueling ascent that make a supper of sardines and biscuits and jam so much better than a thousand dinners at the Criterion. And it is impossible to live without hardship. The hardship of daily trifles, Ashley explains, ever accumulating and impossible to ignore, is so much meaner than pain or cold or fatigue. These annoyances make one weak and petty and shallow, just as greater struggles make on brake and wise. ~Loc. 974
The book alternates between the two worlds with thematic parallel. The reader follows Tristan on his quest and at the same time are given glimpses of the lives of those he seeks. This novel is brave, endearing and thoroughly enjoyable.
Read via NetGalley
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 15, 2014)