Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

Library Books!!! This is my second library review!

I am not sure if writing reviews is getting harder now that the initial excitement of setting up a blog has worn off, or if I am just choosing harder books to review – but this is the second book now where I have had a really hard time trying to figure out what I want to say. I guess the easiest thing, like most stories, is to start at the beginning.

The Solitary House (or Tom All Alone’s as it is called in the UK) is supposed to be a ‘spin off’ of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I have not read Bleak House; Dickens terrifies me – I have started David Copperfield more times than I care to admit (although, I must say that I loved Great Expectations). However, in anticipation of this review I have read up on Bleak House and I’m intrigued enough with The Solitary House right now to want to see Shepherd’s inspiration, but… the fact that it is about an extremely long court case, and is over 1000 pages long are giving me some doubt about whether I want to read it or not. Reading a spin-off is always a double edge sword; I think that for them to work really well the new author must truly love the original work – and want to keep the original authors voice as true as possible. Even then, I guess it depends on how close an interpretation is supposed to be. See! There is no real way to win.

Now, to get back to the topic at hand; our story starts by introducing us to Charles Maddox, the second, an ex-detective and now PI, nephew of Charles Maddox, the ‘great thief taker’ a famous PI in his time. Charles is a great character, most of the time. He is endearing, smart, handsome and a little awkward and bumbling. He’s been kicked off the police force for going against a superior officer and now is a PI with no work except for one case, one incredibly difficult case, which everyone else has already given up on. He is looking for the long lost grandchild of a wealthy man who cast out his daughter when she got pregnant at 17. Everyone tells Charles to drop the case, but it’s a case that is eerily reminiscent of a terrible incident from his past and he just can’t let go. When Charles is hired by a well-known lawyer however, he jumps at the chance to make a little extra money and to maybe make a name for himself. From the get-go we know that something is off with this case, there are secret meetings, men hiding behind oriental screens, incomplete information; not to mention labyrinths, hidden rooms and deceptive mirrors. There is much more going here than meets the eye, and the key seems to be held by Lady Dedlock. About whom we know nothing…. Yet.

Charles’ story is told in third person narrative and present tense, which seems to be a rather unique perspective. I am used to having a narrator, but this feels totally different from other books. Instead of feeling like I am just reading a story, I feel as if is being narrated to me, specifically; like I am watching the action take place in a snow globe and someone is kindly filling me in on the details. This is only enhanced by the fact that our unknown narrator is also adding in facts from current times, even though the scene we are watching takes place in the 1850s “A modern neurologist would say he had unusually well-developed spatial cognition combined with almost photographic memory function. Charles has more than a passing interest in the new advances in daguerreotyping, so he might well understand the meaning of those last words even if not the science behind them, but he would most certainly smile at the pretension.” For the most part, I don’t notice the tense, but sometimes it looms large and loud, and I am kind of loving it. I feel like I have been given a special privilege to witness these events.

Interspersed between chapters is a first person narrative in the form of Hester; a young (? We are not really sure of her age) orphan who now lives with a generous guardian Mr. Jarvis and several other young men and women. I have no idea what is going on at this house. There is no reason given for Hester’s guardian taking her in, or any of the young orphans in his care, but there is a slightly creepy air given to their relationship. Hester seems to spend her days taking care of the other girls, but only as a companion, and the girls seem to come and go depending on the whims of Mr. Jarvis. Every time I read one of Hester’s entries I feel a little uncomfortable and desperately want to know what’s going on in her house. I have a feeling that she has something to do with the missing child, and I wonder if all three story lines (Charles’ two cases and Hester) will eventually connect, although I am assuming they must.

There is something slightly off about this book though, and I cannot quite put my finger on it. I am enjoying reading it and enjoying the story – but I feel like I should be more invested in the characters at this point than I am? The problem is that I do not know why I am not invested in them. Shepherd has been really good at developing their personalities and I quite like Charles and most of the supporting characters... still. It is still only halfway through the book however; there is plenty of time for more character development and plenty of time for me to fall in love with them more. So I will definitely keep reading!

Rumour has it (ok – I searched Goodreads) that all of Lynn Shepherd’s books are spin offs of famous classics (Dracula, Frankenstein, Mansfield Park, all of which I have read) and I think it would be cool to read the rest of them and do a compare/contrast  – a Booker Tease challenge maybe? 

Today's tea is not one that I have actually tried - but it is one of David's most popular teas, and pretty appropriate for this post, I believe. Cream of Earl Grey is a vanilla-y spin off of the more traditional and widely known Earl Grey - apropos, no?

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