It is an unusual book to be sure. I can’t think of when I’ve read something that reminds me of numerous other books or stories and at the same time is entirely unlike anything else. It’s a slippery eel of a novel.
My attempt at a summary will be inept at best and confusing at worst, but I’ll try to sketch it out a bit. The Torrington-Swift family consists of Mother (Charlotte), second husband and step-father (Edward), and children (Emerald, Clovis and Smudge). The book opens as Edward is leaving for Manchester in attempt to secure a loan that will allow the family to remain on their beloved (though not inherited or entailed) estate, Sterne. It seems the family fortunes, like many of the upper-middle class and landed gentry’s during the interwar years, are fading if not crashing. Shortly after Edward’s departure cousins arrive for Emerald’s birthday (though not in the combination she had hoped for). Then they receive word that a train has derailed near them and would they be so kind as to house the poor souls until the Railway can send for them? Thus begins a strange and unpredictable night at Sterne.
Emerald’s birthday party plans quickly unravel as the house becomes overrun with bedraggled, hungry travelers. But much like the English society of the time, a somewhat absurd attempt is made to maintain protocol — no doubt part of Jones’ complicated allegory. Indeed the “old” is often at odds with the “new”, or at the very least continually juxtaposed.
The yews had been meant for a hedge and cultivated as one for perhaps two hundred years but had run sluggishly away with themselves and, neglected, they formed a misshapen lumbering procession. They were wrinkles of dense growth. They were resinous twisted towers with pockets like witches’ huts hidden within their vastness for playing or hiding. Pg. 6.
Yet inside the house, a much more modern scene is unfolding…
Emerald, passing the morning room on her way to Mrs. Trieves, came upon Clovis, lying crumpled before the fire and listlessly plucking at the edges of a newspaper. The spaniels Nell and Lucy reclined on the battered velvet chaise near to him, lifting snuffy noses in her direction as she stopped in the door. Pg. 14
Generational gaps, class differences and the sacrifices one makes to bridge them are continually touched upon. In this way, I was at turns reminded of Downton Abbey, PG Wodehouse, and I Capture the Castle. It can be wickedly funny and distinctly sharp at the same time. There is also an undertone (and sometimes overlay) of the supernatural. It is reflective of The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson and Emlyn Williams. The guests vacillate between wandering zombie-like and acting as subtle oracles.
And when the slick Mr. Traversham-Beechers emerges from the pack things really get unsettling. He is like Mephistopheles or Old Scratch, come to suggest and infiltrate.
He darted to the sideboard, took a clean glass. Then, choosing with care, he opened a new decanter, one of port and poured the dark liquid until it quivered, swollen, at the top of the glass. The party were mesmerized. The sounds of singing seeped under the door, curling like smoke about them as they watched. Pg. 163
The book’s uncanniness is quickly addictive. Just when it seems to find a tack, it changes direction again. Various scenes come in and out of focus and the author manages to demonstrate contemporaneous events very well. A very enjoyably out-of-body experience.
Many thanks to the folks at HarperCollins for the review copy.
On Sale: 5/1/2012
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Ages: 18 and Up