I’m a fan of dual time-line stories but suspect that these are far trickier to pull off than the big hits in the genre suggest, I have read my fill of poor imitations where the connections between past and present are weak or worse still, contrived. Books where all too often, one of the stories shores up the other to such an extent that you feel it was only invented to appeal to those of us who enjoy this form of storytelling. The House of Birds is not one of these poor imitations, better still the story in the present is about a man, Oliver who has walked out of his highly paid job and is ‘considering his options!’
Oliver met Kate when he was a twelve-year-old boy and together, one sunny day, finding themselves outside Kate’s Great-Aunt’s house decided as a bit of a dare to investigate. They made their way through the overgrown garden and Oliver climbed up to peer through one of the upstairs windows. What he saw in the room made a memory that he never quite shook off, coming as these vivid memories often do, just before his life changed, and he moved away from Oxford. Years later Oliver and Kate meet again and start to build a life together. Kate’s family has been split into two sides for years over an ongoing dispute of inheritance of the house in Oxford but now it has been passed to Kate. With the house in a poor state of repair and Oliver at a loose end, he decides to use his time organising the repairs and renovations. Once there he finds a story, written by a woman called Sophie.
Sophie’s story is set in the 1920s where she is trying to gain access to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but not having anyone to write a letter to allow her entry she is turned away. So starts the beginning of my enormous sympathy for this young woman, one whose husband returned from the war a different man to the one who left. This is a woman who has a love of books, of language and of learning and yet she is tied to the house where her staff have not enough to keep them busy but go some way into bringing life into a house where husband and wife have little conversation and who sleep in separate rooms.
The link between past and present is far from clear, even to Oliver as Kate had never mentioned a Sophia, so the first mystery is how the document ended up in the house at all. But like me, he could not fail to be captivated by Sophia’s story and when the pages come to an end, he wants to know more and without Kate’s knowledge tries to find out more which means talking to the side of the family who believe the house belongs to them.
Already enthralled by the story I was especially thrilled later on when mentions of Crete, in particular, Knossos, and the renovation of the site by Arthur Evans in the early twentieth century because I visited the site on my holiday this year. We had a very knowledgeable guide Maria, and so I know that Morgan McCarthy has done her research well from the titbits that correlate perfectly to all that I learnt about the site. With many pieces of information that are lightly sprinkled throughout the book, from myths and legends to the difference between a labyrinth and a maze, battles and kings and queens, meant that this was a book that taught me some new things too without it ever feeling anything apart from the fabric of the book itself.
This book has some outstanding characters who run the gamut of emotions of humans around the world, and some of these are mirrored between past and present. Sophia has a sister, and there is sibling rivalry, there is love, there is duty and there is guilt and greed… I could go on. This isn’t a fast moving book but the language is beautiful and the writing evocative. I had one of those sad moments when I reached the very satisfying ending, where I genuinely missed the characters I’d come to know and love.
I was delighted to receive a copy of The House of Birds from the publishers Headline. This unbiased review is my thank you to them