This is one of those books that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for years, and I finally decided it was time to dust it off and give it a read. And I was so glad I did.
Kate Morton’s book is built around secrets that we can guess at, and that are implicitly obvious, and it is this intricate weaving of truth into the history that Grace is narrating that make the plot compelling. What I think is most attractive about these hints is that they take actions in different directions: at one point, Grace talks of how history is never truly static, because one account can alter another and add dimensions previously unseen, and it is this basis that ‘The House At Riverton’ is reliant upon. One person’s suicide is another person’s personal tragedy, one man’s jumpiness is another man’s shell shock, and one girl’s invisibility is actually a guise for omniscient knowledge.
The idea of Grace having reached 99 years old without dispelling the secrets of Riverton is one of the most beautiful elements of the plot. It means she is still unseen yet incredibly important: the film crew, the staff at Riverton when it becomes a tourist destination, even her own children, fail to recognise that Grace’s input changes history as it is known. The only thing that niggled at me slightly was in Part Four, where Grace is telling us how Hannah felt, and it’s an issue faced by many a first-person narrative, as you have to question how the narrator knows how others felt. However, it didn’t temper the pace of the story; if anything, moving towards Hannah quickened the pace in order to bring events to their haunting climax. What I missed slightly was Emmeline: she went from being the runt of the trio in The Game, to the sophisticated and beautiful socialite, but we only witnessed this transformation objectively, and although implicitly we are aware of Emmeline’s mentality, it would have been nice to see her as an individual.
One of the major strengths of the novel was its socio-historical descriptions. The condition of servants, the roles within a household and most poignantly, the First World War, were all described without over-indulgence: information was available but not forced on the reader, and as such it flowed with the story instead of being clunkily added in, as so many other novels have done. This particularly did justice to Alfred and Robbie, moulding their horrifying experiences into the British setting to highlight the continuous struggle they faced every day. The conflict between social roles and the internal disconcordance with these represented the novel perfectly: underneath the polished exterior of rank and hierarchy lay turmoil and devastation that the surface pushed away in an effort to deny its existence.
The interconnected nature of the various plot strands also worked in favour of the novel, as every character and situation had a destination. One of the more touching elements of this was the revelation that Grace finally found Alfred and was able to just be with him, without obligation or reprisals, and I think this is the point at which I started to well up! Equally, Marcus’ anticipated return was well-timed, as the story was able to both finish and be continued by Marcus and his writing, providing a brilliant circularity to the novel’s end by exposing the importance of a former house and Lady’s maid. Equally, Mr Hamilton and Mrs Townsend welcoming Grace back to Riverton was wonderfully poignant, as her journey was able to end where it began. This climaxed in Grace’s story only being complete with her death: the secrets stayed with her until the end, and only in death was she able to rejoin the house at Riverton.
The ending had me in floods: the misunderstood history, the union of two sisters being cemented only by their separation, and the opportunities denied by history were all written with such sensitivity that it was impossible not to be swept along in the tide of emotions. What made this even more impassioned was that it was all grounded in reality: the romanticism, the social situations, and the potential alternative lives were all genuine. Nothing was overdone and overkilled; everything felt natural, and it is for this reason that you end up feeling like you are stood alongside the characters, revelling in their triumphs and crying alongside them with their defeats. ‘The House at Riverton’ is a beautiful book, and one that haunts you with the realisation that history can never be fully known.