Take a Chance

Once in awhile, I like to take a chance on a debut novel, especially if I've seen a good review. Kate Morton's The House at Riverton was published to great acclaim in Australia and a best seller in Britain according to Library Journal. It is kind of an upstairs, downstairs book told through the memories of the now aged former servant girl and ladies maid, Grace.

Grace goes to work at Riverton house just before the first World War when she is only 14. She becomes the silent witness to The Game played by the son and two daughters of the house. Grace observes and comments on family secrets, glittering society and the world of the 1920s that is just on the cusp of vanishing forever.

I liked the author's descriptions, especially this one giving us a first glimpse of the young poet who figures so hugely later in the story, "Alone in the room, his dark eyes grave beneath a line of dark brows, he gave the impression of sorrow past, deeply felt and poorly mended. He was tall and lean, though not so as to appear lanky, and his brown hair fell longer than was the fashion, some ends escaping others to brush against his collar, his cheekbone."

Years later in the summer of 1924 during a party, this young poet shoots and kills himself at the lake near the house. The only witnesses are the daughters Hannah and Emmeline, and only they - and Grace- know the truth.

Grace, now a 98-year-old woman living in a nursing home, is approached by a filmmaker who is making a film of the events of that fateful summer of 1924. The meeting stirs up old memories and Grace recounts her observations of the events and ultimately reveals the truth.

I was particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two stories - long ago events with the everyday life of 98-year-old Grace and her thoughts about the working of memory, "And I told you about the memories I've been having. Not all of them; I have a purpose and it isn't to bore you with tales from my past. Rather I told you about the curious sensation that they are becoming more real to me than my life. The way I slip away without warning, am disappointed when I open my eyes to see that I am back in 1999; the way the fabric of time is changing, and I am beginning to feel at home in the past and a visitor to this strange and blanched experience we agree to call the present."

Later Grace says, "I am slipping out of time. The demarcations I've observed for a lifetime are suddenly meaningless: seconds, minutes, hours, days. Mere words. All I have are moments."

I have a strong suspicion that this is the way memory is for my own 96-year-old mother.