If only I could hang wallpaper…
So, I was in the library and I saw a book with a flapper on the front, standing in a room with greeny-blue wallpaper with a bird detail that I would like for my own home, and so I got it out, as well, if I’m honest, shallow by thy name. Luckily, The House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy is actually a good book, and my cover-judging justified. And while I usually trust the excerpts of reviews on book covers if they are from the Observer (less if they are from Heat, which truthfully suggests I’m a hideous snob when it comes to magazines with celebrities on the front) both the Observer and Heat were right.
What struck me most was how clever it was. I wasn’t sure about the opening, the yuppie couple, Kate and Oliver, and their city jobs, their strained relationship, but a flashback to their original childhood meeting, and the introduction of the house Kate inherits with its dusty corners, old books and secrets, serves to demolish all that is annoying. Oliver has left his job as a coke-snorting trader, and redeems himself to the reader by wanting to sensitively restore the house while Kate is working in New York. He finds what appears to be a diary belonging to Sophia, a 1920s resident of the house, with all the dropped waists and war-scarred men that entails. He becomes drawn into the history of the house, and the book becomes a split narrative between them, nearly 100 years apart.
The Bodleian Library features heavily in Sophia’s story, emblematic of the restricted access to education for women at the time, and her own personal freedom, and tapping nicely into many readers’ love of nice libraries. While her PTSD husband is making the house taut and uncomfortable, she makes a new friend who agrees to fraudulently sign her in as his sister, so she can read history.
The other clever touch is when one diary suddenly ends, Oliver is as fraught as us, wanting to know what happened to Sophia, and Google is no help to him at all with regards to finding out the family’s story. Someone whom many of us would have little in common with becomes more human and in touch with people around him, and those before him, as the book grows. There is also a family feud going on about ownership of the house, and Oliver meets Lena, a rough-around-the-edges Land Rover-driving, cottage-dwelling falconer, who points out every anti-yuppie comment the reader may want to make. The house should have really come to her, and Oliver, like Lena, understands the spirit of the building, and he has more in common with his girlfriend’s distantly-removed sweary relative than his own girlfriend.
The language is rich but still flows easily, and made me want to go to bed early just to read it. All the attractive touches of the interesting ingredients, such as old buildings, other people’s diaries and family secrets, give the book that good buffet feeling (the at least £15 per head-sort) I associate with Roald Dhal and Agatha Christie, a nice spread of various, interesting and comforting treats that leave you feeling satisfied, and never bored.
It also made me wish some relative I didn’t know I had would die and leave me a grand old house in Oxford (preferably with beautiful birdie wallpaper already in situ, as if it were up to me to hang it, it would end up looking like multi-coloured papier-mâché had been thrown at the wall). Some yuppies have all the luck.