The House at Riverton
In the halcyon days before the First World War, Grace Bradley goes to work as a maid at Riverton House and becomes inextricably involved with the Hartford family, especially the two diametric daughters, intelligent Hannah and beautiful Emmeline. Later, in 1924, a young poet commits suicide, and only three people know the truth behind the events—Hannah, Emmeline, and Grace. Fast-forward to 1999. A movie is being made about the poet and Riverton House, and Grace, now in a nursing home, is consulted for “historical accuracy.” In flashback form, Grace slowly tells Hannah and Emmeline’s real story.
The blurbs with this novel bill it as “reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier,” and there are elements of this, but it also smacks heavily of McEwan’s Atonement and Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day in the ambience and some of the characterization, as well as incorporating elements of other works. The overall effect of the novel is… derivative. It also lacks the sharpness and polish, respectively, of these two authors, but Morton’s prose is well-written—often attractively evocative and the imagery vivid. She valiantly attempts to impress the upstairs/downstairs dynamic on a modern audience to which it is alien—to illustrate the mindset of those who took pride in subservience, rather than be constrained by it. Most of the characters are archetypes, but they fit in comfortably with the story, which is itself a familiar construct. Occasionally the dialogue rings false for English society of the time period, and this may spring from the fact that Morton is an Australian native. The atmosphere is the strong point of this tale, as the storyline of betrayal and secrets, though interesting enough to pull the reader along to the end, is not particularly gripping. On the whole, a comfortable read, if a bit overlong.