Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Aussie Book Review #4 - The Shifting Fog/The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton
Gaiety, glamour and tragedy in the grand country houses of Edwardian England.
Writing fiction is a game of chance. We write, we publish (what are the odds?) then where do we go from there? Plenty of places for some…
Who would imagine that a 29-year-old Queensland writer would publish a first novel, sell it to 11 countries, produce a deal worth close to $1 million and then spark interest in a movie by one of the makers of The Da Vinci Code? Heady stuff, Kate Morton.
The movie is mostly speculation at this stage, but the chances of Hollywood success are good, because the plot of The Shifting Fog contains the details necessary to discerning directors of period drama. The story revolves around two stunningly beautiful heroines (blonde sisters – do I see a smouldering Scarlett Johansson and a chipper Gwenyth Paltrow?) who are the last descendants of an enervated but glamorous and ancient family, and are both in love with the same man, a poet. But in the summer of 1924, on the eve of a glittering Society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, the young poet takes his life.
The story begins in the winter of 1999. Grace Bradley, 98, one-time house-maid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and memories, long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind, begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge; something history has forgotten but Grace never could.
The Great War is over. The story is set as the war-shattered Edwardian summer surrenders to the decadent twenties. The Shifting Fog is both a thrilling mystery and an engrossing, passionate love story full of secrets and lies. The English aristocratic family is in terminal decline (surely not), living in an elegant and outdated country house where Picassos hang in lost corners and an unseen army of loyal servants toil day and night so the heroines never have to lift anything heavier than a cigarette holder, lucky girls.
These servants, despite their devotion to the family, have troublesome Real Lives, which inevitably intersect with the fates of those upstairs. Cue tragedy, chaos and a surprising amount of shorthand. Throw in a brooding poet (who could that be? will Johnny Depp do?) with whom both the sisters fall in love, a rich American who marries one of them, and, as the back cover describes it, "a shattered Edwardian summer", and the atmosphere of elegiac romance and nostalgia is so thick you could cut it with a knife. The only witnesses to the tragedy, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.
This story may not be everyone’s cup ‘o tea, but the reality is that many people - me included - absolutely love this stuff, which is why The Shifting Fog became an instant hit. Give me a story containing doomed love, a large staff and a wide selection of flapper dresses, and I'm happy. The problem here, however, is that this ground has been so well covered by such gifted writers as Mitford and Waugh, Fitzgerald and Coward, so you must be brilliant to stand out - and The Shifting Fog is some distance from brilliance, but eminently readable.
I recommend this book. We’ve read Fitzgerald et al, now let’s read a modern take on the flapper era.
To read some more fair dinkum Aussie Author Reviews click the kangaroo.