” The third photograph I have avoided recognizing, avoid assigning its place in history. The people I identify easily; the fact that they are dressed for a party. There were so many parties in those days, people were always dressing up and posing for photographs. They could be going anywhere. But they are not. I know where they are, and I know what is to come. ” (302)
Just before World War I, at the age of 14, Grace Bradley goes into service with the Hartford family at Riverton in rural England, where, first and foremost, she learns the key to of the trade: keep the family’s secrets and deserve their trust. Raised by a woman (who was once a Riverton servant) who never speaks of an absent father, Grace is awed by the opportunity. Over the years at the house she has been trustful and conscientious, eventually becoming the ladymaid to Miss Hannah, who is married to Teddy Simion, son of an American entrepreneur. The marriage is no more than a symbiotic relationship in which usefulness has superseded passion, for Teddy is an accessory whose attendance makes possible for adventure Hannah is on.
It’s been an age since we buried her. A wintry day in 1922 when the earth was frozen solid and my skirts blew icy against my stockinged legs, and a figure, a man, stood on the hill, barely recognizable. She took her secrets with her, into the cold, hard earth, but I learned them in the end. I know a lot about secrets; I have made them my life. (270)
A film director awakens in 98-years-old Grace memories long consigned to dark reaches of her mind, abut what really happened at Riverton in 1924, when Robbie Hunter, a friend of David Hartford, fired a gun at his head during a lavish party. Nobody alive but Grace knows the truth about the cause of the poet’s death. Bound by duty, loyalty, and friendship to the Hartford sisters, Hannah in particular, Grace is forever entwined with their lives and secrets.
In our line of work, what have we if we don’t have our loyalty? (347)
As memories emerge, first in tentative drops, then deluge, Grace unfolds the secrets behind that fatal evening, and its macabre repercussions for the people involved. Morton’s debut novel uses troupes of literary Gothic: the haunting of the present by the past; the insistence of family secrets; the return of the repressed; and inheritance. Two mysteries—or rather, secrets, exist at the heart of the book, one of which concerns identity of Grace’s father, is no surprise to me. What really happens by the lake that concludes in the young poet’s death is a shock, a secret sealed by Grace’s loyalty to her mistress and that which is banished to the fringe of her mind.
The House at Riverton is an engrossing read, above par for a debut, despite minor flaw of inconsistency. I do enjoy how the narrative flows back and forth, seamlessly, between dream-like, pastel hued reflections of Grace and the ornate, intricate story set in Edwardian England, a bygone era of gentility. Morton is able to evoke the details of the socio-historical period represented in The Remains of the Day and Gosford Park (though I have reservation to equate it to Ishiguro’s writing and du Mariner’s suspense). Heavily reminiscent of du Mariner, Mitford, and Vine, this book explores love, commitment, friendship, and loyalty at a time of enormous transition.
480 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]