I’ve worked my way through several novels since the start of this year, and unfortunately they have all been somewhat lacklustre. They haven’t been bad exactly, just not particularly good. Finally, I have finished a rather epic tome that was wonderful, so here is a review. In addition, at the end I share a quick review of two short stories I read this week which I absolutely loved.
“Happiness in life is not a given, it must be seized.”
In December of last year, I bought this book for someone else as a Christmas present. When I arrived home, I decided to take a closer look at the synopsis, and was intrigued. Past and present plots interwoven with each other, a gothic castle, family secrets, a mystery waiting to be unsolved, a creepy children’s story – how could I not want to read this? With no guilt whatsoever, I decided to keep it for myself (don’t worry; I replaced the gift with another one).
The story begins with a lost letter, delivered decades after it was sent. The main character, Edie, is with her mother, Meredith, when the latter receives a letter sent to her during World War II. Meredith has an emotional reaction to the letter, but insists that it is not important and refuses to answer any questions. Edie is not content to let it lie, however, and discovers that when her mother was a child, she was evacuated from London to the country-side like many children so as to avoid being harmed by bombs being dropped by the Germans. While evacuated, Meredith lived with the three Blythe sisters at Milderhurst Castle: Percy, the oldest and the more dominant sibling; Saffy, Percy’s twin sister who manages the house and usually defers to Percy; and Juniper, the youngest sister who is talented and resolute, but with a history of fugues and blackouts since childhood.
At the time that the story begins (1992), the sisters are getting on in years, the castle is crumbling around them, and Juniper has descended into insanity, purportedly because her fiancé abandoned her in 1941. Unable to stop herself from finding out about her mother’s childhood and why the letter had such an effect on her, Edie travels to the castle without telling anyone, and meets the sisters. The youngest sister, Juniper, mistakes Edie for Meredith and makes several cryptic comments about betrayal and broken promises. As the story progresses, Edie begins to suspect that her mother is responsible for Juniper’s abandonment by her fiancé, and perhaps had a relationship with him herself. If not, then what happened to him? Why did he just disappear? What secrets are the sisters hiding? Why won’t Edie’s mother talk to her about her childhood? And can Edie follow the numerous clues without ruining lives?
The book jumps between Edie’s first person perspective, and a third-person narrator that takes us back to the 1940s with extended looks into the lives of the three sisters, their relationships with each other, unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, and romantic relationships that never go anywhere. I found all the characters sympathetic, but also frustrating, and at one point, I was mentally yelling at each of them to make better choices. Early on, I knew that I would identify with the main character, Edie, when she described herself thus:
“I’m just not the type of person who accumulates friends or enjoys crowds… I’ve often thought what a marvellous thing it would be if I could only conduct relationships on paper. And I suppose, in a sense, that’s what I do, for I’ve hundreds of the other sort, the friends contained within bindings, pages after glorious pages of ink, stories that unfold the same way every time but never lose their joy, that take me by the hand and lead me through doorways into worlds of great terror and rapturous delight. Exciting, worthy, reliable companions.”
Edie’s distance from human connections extends to her relationship with her mother, and part of the motivation for her all-consuming quest to uncover the many mysteries that present themselves along the way is that she wishes to know her mother better.
Morton does a wonderful job of keeping you guessing until the end, and every time I thought I had figured it all out, I was wrong. One of the main critiques of this novel online seems to be that it is too long, and takes too many detours. While there are many threads to this novel, I found them all interesting, and my frustration at being denied answers earlier in the story mirrors Edie’s journey to unravel the mysteries of the Blythe sisters and Milderhurst Castle. The length of this novel also allows for an interesting approach to storytelling. Often, books follow a predictable arc with narrative explanations and emotional resolutions being presented at the end. This novel, however, has several smaller arcs which resolve at different points along the way. I enjoyed this aspect of the book, but it probably adds to the frustration for some as there were several times at which I thought “Finally, the truth is revealed!”, only to discover that there were more layers beneath.
Overall, a marvellous reading experience, and I am looking forward to finding the author’s other books.
Rating: 5/5: Excellent and highly recommended.
Kate Morton is an Australian author. You can find out more about her writing on her website.
“She considers her choices. She could play Bob like a fish right up to the final moment, then leave him cold with his pants around his ankles: a satisfaction, but a minor one. She could avoid him throughout the trip and leave the equation where it’s been for the past fifty-some years: unresolved.
Or she could kill him.
She contemplates this third option with theoretical calm.”
Margaret Atwood has the ability to write about difficult, heavy subjects in an understated way, without drama or pathos. Somehow, it can make descriptions of violence or emotional damage all the more devastating. So it is with Stone Mattress. The protagonist, Verna, is on a voyage to the Arctic. With a string of deceased husbands in her past, all of whom died due to illness or natural causes – according to the doctors, anyway – Verna is on the lookout for her next husband. Instead, she runs into someone she knew in high school, Bob, a ghost from the past that she has never forgotten due to one incredibly painful, violent and life-changing night. Despite the profound – and deleterious – impact he had on her young life, he doesn’t seem to recognise her which only makes the unexpected encounter all the more difficult and infuriating. She contemplates her choices: she could lead him on then dump him at a vulnerable moment, she could try to ignore him and move on with her life, or she can kill him, and lay the ghosts of her past to rest (and possibly resurrect new ones).
This is a beautifully and simply written tale of vengeance (or justice?) and memory.
5/5 – Excellent and highly recommended
“There was a boy minding his own business, trying to get through another boring day at school. Then his evil teacher appeared and threatened to send him to the wicked, flesh-eating principal’s office if he didn’t write a stupid letter. Here is that letter.”
We have all known people who are pedants: obsessed with rules, details, minutiae, and the “right” thing even in the face of the complexity and messiness of human emotions. In the case of this story, our pedant is an English teacher rigidly trying to get a pupil of hers to follow the rules of language and punctuation instead of digging deeper to uncover the pain at the base of his rebellion.
This story is a series of letters between Scott and his teacher Mrs. Olson, and then between him and a school counsellor, Miss Holly. Mrs. Olson has set the class a task of keeping a letter journal where they write to her each day to improve their language skills, and the first few letters are between her and Scott. Mrs. Olson just wants Scott to get things right, and focuses on capitalisation, punctuation and vocabulary. He mocks her attempts to get him to write “correctly” by purposely misunderstanding them, leading to a rather hilarious series of letters in which he taunts her by taking her instructions literally. For example she demonstrates how a letter should begin, such as with “Dear Name”. In his next letter, he actually writes “Dear Name” instead of “Dear Mrs. Olson.”
Fed-up with Scott’s intransigence and his habit of getting into trouble outside of class, he is sent to speak to Miss Holly, a school counsellor who takes over the task of writing to Scott. At first, Scott rebuffs her attempts to communicate with him, and refuses to talk to her when they meet. Over time, however, they develop a relationship revealed in their letters to each other, and Miss Holly uncovers the pain lurking beneath Scott’s behaviour.
This is one of the best short stories I have read in a long time. It is beautifully written, and the use of letters as the narrative is handled masterfully.
5/5 – Excellent and highly recommended
Dana Mele is based in New York, and you can visit her at her website.