Review of Kate Morton’s House at Riverton

Amazon.com (Kindle Edition)/Barnes and Nobles (Nook Edition)/Kobo

Published by Atria Books-Imprint of Simon Schuster

   Book Recommended particularly to fans of rapturous, dangerously compelling BBC dramas- like much the recent series The Paradise or Mr. Selfridge

   As I read this book, I kept going back to this fantastic rendition of a song  from the classic British series, Upstairs and Downstairs! This book does have a few subplots and even characters slightly (very slight, indeed) in common with those from this classic series. I recommend that series. It’s on Netflix and it simply amazing.

   After reading this Kate Morton novel, you will start to startlingly see the stark similarities between the lyrics of this song and  the various conflicts present within this novel! Emilie Autumn is simply one of my favorite modern musicians!

Reading a Kate Morton book is truly analogous to watch a finely written BBC drama with human characters of depth and many complex shades of grey. Every time, I read one page of her books, I see a deep, psychoanalytic glimpse into the human heart and soul. Kate Morton’s writing overwhelmingly reflects the vicissitudes of fortune, much like one of the most noteworthy writers in English history Chaucer once vividly captured the mysterious force of fortune in The Knight’s Tale. Much like the travelers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Kate Morton’s debut novel, published first in 2006 in Australia, vibrantly captures the dynamic lives of people, from divergent economic backgrounds, living within a dying way of life. The rigid social hierarchy of England continues to haunt England today; this class system is a Gothic poltergeist haunting not just the unhallowed grounds of a crumbled English estate, but the very heart of modern English folk vying to live more in harmony with the Enlightenment ideals of the eighteenth century.

Coincidentally, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales  was written during a time when Europe was about to undergo a renaissance. Bear in mind, that it is historians that anachronistically defined this ideological, aesthetic stage in Europe’s history (taken in hindsight) as the Renaissance. But, Chaucer did not know this; he only had the prescience of a master writer that could subtly capture this through his many different stories of the many diverse number of travelers in his stories. Kate Morton’s House of Riverton revolves around the story of an aged, ninety-year old, venerable servant that has lived through some of the most drastic sociological and ideological changes to ever occur within such a short frame of time- this time frame being comprised of most of the twentieth century.
Her travelers are the many characters that live in this house- both upstairs (where the rich and affluent live) and the downstairs portion (where the industrious, supposedly single-minded servants live). The estate, as always, is a character, in that the rich descriptions of the rooms of the estate  provide us with the keen sense that at the dawn of the twentieth century; there was still vibrant life persisting in the estates. Both World Wars have still not destroyed this antiquated way of life.

As with her later novels, The Forgotten Garden and The Distant HoursThe House at Riverton does not have the same seamless and richly subtle writing found in those later works, where this exceptional quality of Kate Morton’s writing really starts to become more polished and accomplished. Yet, The House at Riverton still has that very adept subtle writing that will only improve with later novels, and it is this subtle way of writing characters that draws the human heart and mind into the story. With her last two novels, she captures something that personally draws me in as a reader with the type of character that is somehow entrapped in an insular way of life- it is the prison of social convention- that stifles the passion and dauntlessness of a strong character (in this case, this character is Hannah, the eldest daughter that lives at Riverton) , who seeks to live emancipated from the social expectations that bind her. In all of Kate Morton’s books, this cage is the  conventions of society. It is the difference between the liberated life without the estate, and the cold, sterile life of convention that lives within the estate.

In much of English Gothic Fiction, this prison is the Gothic castle or Estate that resembles a dying way of life or really any type of moribund social convention or structure that slowly destroys the passionate, earnest seeker for a more nuanced way of living.  The House at Riverton may seem stylistically more like the seventies British television series Upstairs, Downstairs, but yet it has all the mystery and Gothic intrigue of a Daphne Du Maurer book. In many ways, it is an accomplished feat, much like the rest of her novels, of a classic, though modern English novel.  It is steeped in so many allusive references to older tropes, utilized first by Chaucer and later by other accomplished writers. For the English literature aficionado, you will see glimpses of  Jane Austen, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, etc. in her novels. More compellingly, you will see reflections of twentieth century English writers as well, including Dianne Setterfield (author of The Thirteenth Tale). There is also a subtle allusion to A Handful of Dust,by Evelyn Waugh, and there is also the unique trial of a woman trying to find her place in the ever-changing, topsy-turvy world of the twentieth century, like in Doris Lessing’s A Golden Notebook.

Beyond the allusions to the luminaries of English literature, Gothic literature and the commentary on the dying era of the English estate, Kate Morton’s The House of Riverton has a universal story of perseverance and lofty dreams; it has a character that resonates with all of us in the form of Hannah or even or silent (seemingly acquiescent character) Grace- the narrator of this tale- who has lived a very full life as not just a servant in the Riverton estate, but she later becomes an archaeologist all due to the new emerging sociological and ideological changes effected on English society that allow her to be free. This tale asks of us, much like Chaucer’s The Knight Tale, why is it that some experience good fortune and others experience bad fortune. Is our lives really ruled entirely by the erratic nature of fortune?

This force echoes in all English literature- the medieval construction wheel of fortune- and it is something that I see as an omnipresent, infernally frustrating force in my own life, as I have been searching tirelessly for a job in the dying world of the publishing industry. Kate Morton’s books touch something deep within me: that strife between personal dreams and social constraint. It unravels my own innermost vexations and sources of sorrow, and lets me find some catharsis in it. This is how literature should be written, it should be letting us not just empathize deeply with the characters at the core of a fictitious tale. It should be letting us vicariously deal with our emotions in a private, methodical space, and this is the type of all-consuming, subtle writing that lets the reader plunge completely into the tale that has this magical effect on the reader. If a writer is too didactic, too artificial, too unwilling to trust the reader and really themselves to tell a tale, it will not be a story that matters to the reader. The reader will not leave your story, not just thinking deeply about the dilemmas of the characters, but their own personal dilemmas.

After reading House of Riverton, I wiped away a few residual tears and thought deeply and silently on the meaning of my life, and I wondered just how the  mythical medieval construction of the wheel of fortune was going to turn for me. What connotations will my future path in life have? Do my present challenges and frustrations altogether serve an ultimate purpose? It is no coincidence that we feel much like the silent narrator of this tale Grace, as she dictates the story of her past life spent at the House of Riverton aloud, seeing all the clever ways that life, seen in hindsight as a collective whole,  makes some coherent sense.  I really hope to read another Kate Morton book, even though there is only one left, and that one happens to be her latest: The Secret Keeper. For now, I will meditate ever more on my life, based on the feelings and experiences that Kate Morton’s House of Riverton  allowed me to experience.

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