Review: ‘The House at Riverton’ by Kate Morton

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Thursday, June 30, 2011 - Save & Share - One Comment

As you might have guessed from the enormous delay between finishing this book and a review actually appearing here, I’ve been rather busy recently.  What with emergency dentist appointments, being ill, making wedding invitations and all the familycommitments which inevitably accompany a slew of bank holidays, I’ve been rushing hither and yon with very little time for reading (or indeed reviewing).  I needed something light to read that wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up and put down again in the little bits of time I could snatch for reading, but I didn’t want to abandon my April aim of reading some chunkier books.  I’ve had Kate Morton’s first two novels sat on my shelves since last year when the posters for her third book The Distant Hours first made me aware of this writer, and at nearly 600 pages of what promised to be an entertaining but untaxing English-country-house-with-a-secret novel book number one fit the bill rather nicely.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive into The House at Riverton.

The House at Riverton is the story of Grace, once a housemaid at Riverton and later lady’s maid to Hannah Hartford.  Now an elderly lady, she finds herself looking back on her life and the memories of the tragedies that she has tried to forget for so long begin to surface, in part prompted by a visit from a filmmaker who is directing a film about the goings on at Riverton.  But only Grace is left who knows what really happened.

This is a tricky book to review.  I enjoyed it and found the story engaging and the conclusion pleasing.  I raced through it in the time it usually takes to read a books half this size, which is impressive considering the numerous distractions that the book was up against.  Morton conjures up the changing eras well, reflecting the huge shifts in priorities, ideas and societal norms from the pre war years, through the Great War and into the roaring twenties.  Her writing has that sense of nostalgia which always makes me temporarily wish I could live inside the novel, despite that fact that a) I would miss modern technology too much and b) cleraly I would have been a servant, not a fine lady with a country house.  It is an entertaining read and, all in all, a promising debut novel.  However, I had several problems with The House at Riverton which prevented me from finding it a really great book, and it is much easier to put my finger on what these niggles were than on what makes it such a good read, so this is going to come off as a somewhat negative review when I actually really liked the book, I’m looking forward to reading The Forgotten Garden and would reccommend it to people looking for a quick, absorbing read.  It’s a conundrum.

The book starts out with, in my opinion, a huge mistake.  It opens thus:

Last November I had a nightmare.

It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again.  (p. 3)

Naturally, this instantly brings to mind the famous opening line of what is the quintessential English-country-house-with-a-dark-secret novel, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  The  conscious mimicing of such a well known beginning creates a certain set of expectations which, unfortunately, The House at Riverton never quite lives up to.  Yes, it’s a novel in the same genre and yes, it’s good, but Rebecca it isn’t.  Which is a shame, because I don’t think I’d have been quite as disappointed by the novel not quite being what I had hoped if it hadn’t encouraged me itself to set my hopes so high.

Kate Morton writes a good story, but I didn’t necessarily feel that she had it entirely under control at all times.  I’m all for layers in a novel, but here there are were so many strands of mystery and so many Dark Secrets that sometimes it becomes difficult to feel any specific anxiety about any of them.  A Dark Secret will be hinted at, but then abandoned as Morton focuses on one of the other aspects of the book or a different Dark Secret, and while her writing is sufficiently skilful that this is never confusing, it dissipates much of the tension which might have been created.  Instead of worrying about all of these things I found myself unable to worry over much about any of them most of the time.  I felt a vague sense of impending doom thanks to the numerous explicit statements that doom was indeed impending (I really hope this is something that improves; subtelty is key in conjouring up the sort of atmosphere which makes the best gothic country house novels) but I feel the story might have benefitted from a sharper focus to the doom at times.

I also found Morton’s writing style to be not entirely to my tastes.  She has a fondness for using lots of short sentences (it is quite rare for a sentence to have more than two clauses), many of which are predicate sentences which lack a subject for the verb.  She is particularly keen on the single sentence paragraph, usually used at the end of a section or chapter to emphasise the aformentioned impending doom, such as ‘But by then the seed was sown‘ (p. 318).  All of these have their place and can be incredibly effective when employed judiciously, but having the majority of the writing in this style feels jerky and stilted.  I personally would have preferred it had some of these odd little sentences been joined together to make the writing flow more elegantly.  The book is saved, however, by having lots of dialogue which Morton writes extremely well and believeably, and so I only had to wade through the stop-start short sentences occasionally rather than continuously.

My final niggle was the abandoning of the first person narrator when it became inconvenient for the story.  On the whole, I think that the use of Grace as a mouthpiece was excellent: as a servant she is well placed to observe what goes on and people happily talk in front of her (though admittedly I don’t think it would have been quite as free as in the novel) but she is still removed from most of the direct action and so provides an outside perspective for the reader.  This works well for most of the novel, but later the stroy develops in such a way that Grace cannot always be present watching and listening to important events and so these sections are related in the third person.  Morton partially works around this by having Grace explain that other people later told her what happened, but the descriptions of what happened and how people felt and thought are too detailed for this to be believeable.  While I understand the need to work around the limitations of a first person narrator, I wish it could have been accomplished in a different way which hadn’t made me feel as though the author was taking over Grace’s story for a bit and then giving it back to her when it was convenient.

I think that’s the most negative sounding review I’ve ever written for a book to which I’ve given four stars, but these are small things which just prevent the book from achieving its full potential.  I can’t wait to read more of Kate Morton to see if experience has improved on any of these things, but even if not, I bet I’ll still really enjoy the book.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton.  Published by Pan, 2007, pp. 599.  First published in 2006.

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One Response to “Review: ‘The House at Riverton’ by Kate Morton”

Comment from FleurFisher
Time July 2, 2011 at 8:47 pm

I read The House at Riverton before I started blogging, and I suspect that I would have had the same problem as you writing a review. I liked it enough to keep reading, but I didn’t care for the style and I found it a little predictable. One day I’ll give her second book the benefit of the douby, but I’m in no rush. One to take on holiday and leave behind I suspect!

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