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The House at Riverton - Kate Morton

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

The House at Riverton by Australian author Kate Morton is described as a story of love, mystery and a secret history revealed. But does it deliver all that it promises? I think it does.

The story begins in the winter of 1999 when 98 year-old Grace Bradley, a former housemaid at Riverton Manor, is visited by Ursula Ryan, a young director making a film about an incident that happened at the grand country house 75 years earlier.

It’s a visit that forces Grace to confront the past, in particular, the night of a glittering society party when the Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, witnessed the suicide of a young poet, the dashing Robbie Hunter.

The House at Riverton slips effortlessly from past to present as Grace relives the events leading to that fateful night and the part she herself played in it – how a little white lie could have such tragic consequences.

The pace is leisurely and finely detailed and like The Blind Assassin, a novel Morton cites as being similar in its use of literary Gothic, evokes memories of a very different age. But because The House at Riverton is so beautifully written, such niceties work very much to its advantage, giving the reader time to absorb the minutiae of life as it was, not only for the privileged, but also for those less fortunate whose task it was to serve them.

Not surprisingly perhaps, it has been likened to Upstairs, Downstairs – somewhat critically, I feel – but as Morton’s characters and text are entirely original, I can’t see that it matters in the slightest. Besides, as we’ve already seen with countless other genres, the scope is limitless. Furthermore, by her own admission, Morton’s fascination with this socio-historical period did, in fact, stem partly from the classic television series of the seventies.

Morton has also cleverly captured the many and varied moods of old age. For example, old Grace’s reaction to her daughter’s assumption that she’s ‘a bit deaf’ is absolutely spot on:

‘I am not deaf and do not like it when people assume I am – my eyesight is poor without glasses, I tire easily, have none of my own teeth left and survive on a cocktail of pills but I can hear as well as I ever have.’ And this little discourse concludes with, ‘It’s only with age I have learned solely to listen to things I want to hear.’ Was ever a truer word spoken?

On the negative side, and it’s a small whinge, it would have been nice to learn more about Grace’s life in the intervening years but, as they say, that’s another story.

The House at Riverton certainly makes no demands of the reader and is an ideal bedtime or poolside companion. As such, it comes highly recommended.

Read The Blind Assassin review