Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The House of Birds – Morgan McCarthy

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction

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

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Headline
No of Pages: 448
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

47 thoughts on “The House of Birds – Morgan McCarthy

  1. I have this one to read and your lovely review has made me want to read it even more! PS love the falling snow effect on your blog!


      1. The Chemist … it’s become a slow read but that’s me as doing too many things … it has something though midst what for me is obsessively detailed writing … reactants in place, still little sign of chemistry … too early to yield a score…. next week?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a great read. I like books that use two timelines especially when this is done well.

    By the way, the snow looks wonderful. This is the second blog that I have seen with that. How did you get it done?


  3. This does sound really good, Cleo, with my sort of story. I do like that past/present connection, and there’s just something about that post-war (WWI) era that’s fascinating. It sounds like the characters are nicely defined, too, which is always a plus for me.


    1. This was one of those books populated by interesting characters and different motives in the grander sense of life itself, that always makes for enjoyable reading and the plot was handled with a certain amount of sophistication too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This does sound good! I felt myself tearing up as I thought about all the books I’ve loved that stayed with me over the years…and I’m sure this book is one that would do the same. Thanks for sharing.


  5. I love it when characters are so well-drawn that they become like friends. Of course, I agree it’s then hard to close the book on them:) Excellent review! I’m keeping this in mind as I enjoy when an author can successfully manage a dual timeline


      1. I’m bummed my library doesn’t have this one and it isn’t available for kindle in the US. Do you think it’s worth a purchase from Amazon third party sellers..about $9-10?


    1. I love this type of novel but only when they are done really well with both parts having something to say – I liked that our modern day narrator was a man which is unusual for this type of read too. It would make a great book club read with plenty of context about the changing role of women.


  6. I often get disappointed with dual time narratives because I find the story/characters in the past more engaging than those in the present but it sounds from your review that the author may have managed to make both strands equally strong in this case.


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