Well, this book wasn’t what I expected at all. I picked it because I saw it had won the Orange award, and went into it not knowing much else about it. The cover made me think I was in for a romance novel with heaving bosoms and complicated schemes to bring about unexpected and perhaps diasapproved but fortuitous marriage proposals. However, the beginning quickly disabused me of those notions, as it started with a description of a decaying body being carried clumsily down stairs, and moved on to an epilogue with the protagonist sitting naked inside a smelly old wool coat, crouched in front of a fire inside a deserted and apparently decrepit house in the English countryside, talking about how much she loves to be apart from the rest of mankind and wishes it were always winter.
I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stick to the basics here: Catherine and Rob are a sister and brother pair who live in England at the beginning of the twentieth century in a house that is apparently genteel but starting to fall apart due to lack of family funds. They are being raised by their Grandfather and an Irish maid who is about a decade their elder, Kate. Although it is not immediately apparent why, both of their parents are not at home with them, and more than a whiff of scandal and whispers of the moral failures of their family hang over the household.
The heart of the story takes place while the kids are in their late teens and trying to figure out what they want to do with their futures, which of course does include courting and social niceties, you know, like I originally expected. Except that nothing is simple with these people. In a house filled with ancestral secrets, leaving the children with a feeling of being tainted, they quickly begin to amass even more skeletons in the familial closet.
Themes included in the novel that some people might find distasteful: incest, abortion, insanity, and murder, and that’s really just glossing over the potentially gut-wrenching details.
It is easy for me to see why this novel won a prize. You have to be willing to go with the story and immerse yourself in it, but, if you do, the writing is rich and rewarding. Plot-wise, though, even having bought into the basic premise of the novel, some parts really didn’t come together for me. Some of the choices the characters made seemed, well, out of character and really left me scratching my head. And the ending was simultaneously too convenient and ambiguous for my taste, and totally out of place compared to the rest of the novel.
Still, I overall would recommend it, assuming none of the distasteful topics I mentioned above are just not a place you feel like going right now.