This was a novel that spoke of many things that I love – in life and in literature.
- A country house.
- An intriguing family history.
- A lovely garden
- And a great many books and literary allusions.
It was so thoughtfully and elegantly written that a reader might chose how they wanted to journey through the text:
- Sailing through, enjoying the story and the scenery.
- Wandering along, pausing to reflect on things that catch attention.
- Progressing slowly, to be sure of missing absolutely nothing.
I took the middle path, and I had a lovely, lovely time.
The story began with Samuel Browne, a successful merchant banker who had been abandoned by his wife. Not because they had been unhappy but because she had known that they weren’t as happy as the should have been, and because she wanted each of them to have the chance of discovering whatever in the world might make each of them truly happy.
He was adrift, and he turned first to his books and then to a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road, where he hoped that he would find a book that could offer him something new. He took home twelve volumes that made up ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon. He read and read, until somewhere in the seventh volume he found that a card had been pasted to one of the pages that the printer had left blank.
He is amused but he is also intrigued, and so he calls the number on the card. A short conversation inspires him to leave his job and to travel deep into the English countryside to Combe Hall; a lovely house that had been built in the 1600s, that was still a family home, and that housed a private library holding more than eighteen thousand books and three centuries of correspondence.
“My first glance through the doorway revealed two vast windows overlooking a perfect lawn, white with frost. I advanced into a much larger room, looked around, and up, and back. What I saw was books. I was standing in a cathedral to books.
There was a fireplace at each end of the room, nearer the window side, with a narrow green carpet running from one hearth to the other, perhaps twelve yards, in front of the window. Above each fireplace hung a large and age-darkened portrait in a heave frame. A gallery with slender iron railings, reached by a spiral stair in the corner, ran along the long back wall and part of another wall at half height, and near the centre of the dark oak floor stood a huge folio table. Two iron chandeliers hung from the distant, ghostly expanse of coiling plasterwork, and a squat leather armchair stood at each window.
With the exception of the object I have mentioned so far, it was all books …”
Sam’s sole task as ‘archivist’ is to search painstakingly through the books in a private library, to find a letter that was carefully hidden in a book. His employer, Arnold Comberbache, will not tell him why the letter must be found, but he does tell him that the letter may be valuable, and is certainly invaluable to his family.
As he travels along shelves and up and down library ladders the two men talk, allowing Sam to come to terms with his own situation and to learn a great deal about the fascinating history of the Comberbache. Comments written in the books’ margins, notes tucked between the pages, help to bring the past to life. Conversations with visiting family friends and other family members give him new insights.
” ‘A house does not need ghosts to be haunted,’ she said at last, without turning. ‘Memory is enough, if there’s someone there to remember.’ “
But for as long as he stays, he will be utterly absorbed in the life of Combe Hall. He is captivated by the gardens that are tended by a young gardener known to the family as ‘Young Meaulnes’. He is fascinated by the family’s ‘temple’ that was built in woodland to help them to appreciate light and the movement of celestial bodies. He was provided with home comforts by Miss Snyder, who proved to be the finest of family retainers.
It was almost as if the house and grounds were a whole world.
Was it a whole world?
Had his task been what it had seemed?
The puzzle is complex and fascinating, the gothic overtones are lovely, the literary allusions are beautifully judged, and the story plays out beautifully.
It’s a lovely mediation about the possibilities that life offers, about the things that books can give us, and about the relationship between past, present and future.
The end of the story is open to interpretation. I knew what I thought, but this wasn’t a book about finding answers, it was a book about continuing to ask questions and make new discoveries.
There was much that felt familiar, and yet this book felt like nothing else I have read. It absorbed me just as much as Samuel Browne’s quest absorbed him, and it is such an accomplished debut novel.