Friday, December 4, 2009

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton -- Review

"Last November I had a nightmare.

It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again. All the doors hung wide open, silk billowing in the summer breeze. an orchestra perched high on the hill beneath the ancient maple, violins lilting lazily in the warmth. The air rang with pealing laughter and crystal and the sky was the kind of blue we'd all thought the war had destroyed forever. One of the footmen, smart in black and white poured champagne into the top of a tower of glass flutes and everyone clapped, delighting in the splendid wastage --" Kate Morton

And so begins the fragile and haunting memories of Grace Bradley in Kate Morton's unparalled "House at Riverton". In 1924, a young and disturbed poet took his life by the lake at the great house of Riverton with only two young women as witnesses, one, Hannah, the lady of the house and the other, Emmeline, her sister, a famous actress and the lover of the doomed poet. Now, 70 years later, Grace Bradley sits in a nursing home at 99, the last surving member of the Riverton household and the last person on earth who remembers what happened that fateful night. Ursula, a movie producer, wants everything Grace can remember, everything Grace has spent a lifetime trying to forget.

Author Kate Morton takes the reader back to the bygone era of pre WW1 England, showing us the glittering world of the English upper crust through the musings of a 14 year old servant girl who grows with her "superiors" into womanhood. Grace's life as a servant is taken straight from the beloved episodes of Upstairs Downstairs. There is a Mr. Hudson, Mrs. Bridges, a Rose, an abused scullery maid. There is an Edward who returns home with shell-shock. Indeed, much of Morton's novel seems an homage to Upstairs, Downstairs on both ends also providing us with a headstrong suffragate daughter as with Elizabeth, a Georgina etc. But it's a lovely homage. And the poetry of Morton's words, her images, her nuances, hold the reader with golden ties.

The cast of Upstairs/Downstairs

Through the years, Grace is privy to Hannah and Emmeline as they grow, as they change, as the world betrays their innocence in the name of "have tos". She is there, as a young girl herself, when the poet, Robbie Turner first enters Hannah and Emmeline's lives. She is there when he leaves. She watches from the station as Hannah hands him her hair ribbon before he goes to war; a ribbon he will carry the length of the war and beyond. She is there when he returns, years later, changed, as they all are, with eyes only for one. Finally, Grace is there, indeed, is the catalyst for the tragedy that brings the young poet, Hannah and Emmeline to their collective destiny.

This book was magically and wildly nostalgic. The words and the allusions Morton uses are often breathtaking. I was whisked away, I was transported, and just as Grace begins to blur reality and memory, I too found it difficult to reconcile a head full of memories that were not my own. As Grace gets closer to the truth and her final breath, the ghosts she's kept at arm's length for so many years are thick and insistent, everywhere and calling her. The beauty of Morton's writing, the achingly beautiful story that she creates allows the ghosts to call for the the reader as well. When the mystery was finally revealed, I literally gasped out loud. When the book was finally over, I wanted to cry. It has been many years since I've had the pleasure to read art and Kate Morton is truly an artist.