30 November, 2013

The House at Sunset, by Norah Lofts. Book review

First published 1963. Edition reviewed: The History Press, 2009. ISBN, 978-0-7524-4870-1. 287 pages.

The House at Sunset is the last in a trilogy of novels telling the story of a Suffolk house and its inhabitants from the fifteenth century to the twentieth. The trilogy began with Martin Reed and his children and grandchildren in the fifteenth century in The Town House (reviewed here earlier), and continued with further generations of Martin Reed’s descendants during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in The House at Old Vine (reviewed here earlier). The House at Sunset covers the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century. All the main characters are fictional.

Like its predecessors, The House at Sunset is told in a series of independent but interlinked narratives, rather like a collection of short stories.  Each is recounted in first person by a different character, and the narratives are separated by interludes told in third person.  The characters come and go, appearing in the book when they arrive at the house and disappearing again when they are no longer connected with it.

The novel is beautifully written in deceptively simple prose.  The historical background feels very real, capturing changing social attitudes as well as the effects of new technologies, such as the impact of the railway arriving in Baildon.  Some things have surprisingly modern resonances, such as the anxiety of the Victorian shopkeepers when they think a large retail chain is planning to move into the town:

“They sell cheap muck, they give no credit, they’ll undersell for a year to ruin honest traders and then get a monopoly….”

which exactly parallels modern fears when a giant modern supermarket chain announces plans to open a superstore in a market town. 

One of the aspects of the Town House trilogy that I particularly like is its focus on day-to-day life, made compelling by the vivid characterisation.  The main characters are varied individuals, each with their own foibles, fears and hopes, each shaped by their circumstances and experiences, and each with their own dilemmas to face.  Many of the secondary characters are just as vivid, although drawn in less detail, such as the unhappily married Mike and Millie, keeping house (after a fashion) in two rooms and hating every minute of it; or Frances Benyon’s selfish husband; or the mercenary lawyer’s clerk who tries to deceive Felicity Hatton.  In The House at Sunset, the Old Vine starts to change hands by purchase rather than by inheritance, so most of the characters are no longer descended directly from Martin Reed.  Their circumstances vary as social and economic change alters the economy of Baildon and the uses made of the Old Vine. The arrival of the railway changes the street from a residential area to a commercial district and the Old Vine from a private house to a series of thriving shops; two world wars and the Depression reduce it to an overcrowded, overpriced, semi-derelict slum. Similarly, the characters associated with the Old Vine vary from minor gentry to prosperous local business owners – cattle dealers, shopkeepers, restauranteurs – to impoverished tenants and a conscientious environmental health officer.  It’s sad to see Martin Reed’s historic house suffer decline and neglect at the hands of an exploitative property company, though the book ends on a hopeful note with the prospect of a sympathetic owner who may care for the house again.

There is no Author’s Note, perhaps because all the people and events are fictional.

Beautifully written portrayal of the varied people associated with a medieval house in a fictional English market town from the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth century.

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