“Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
So reads the heart-wrenching note pinned to the Tyneford Church door by villagers on Christmas Eve, 1941. In The House at Tyneford, NatashaSolomons has crafted a perfect novel by imagining the stories of a “ghost village” requisitioned by the War Office.
With touches of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The House at Tyneford (Plume/Penguin) is both tragic and hopeful, an intricately woven love story set on the coast of WWII England.
A Jewish nineteen-year-old, Elise lives in a large Viennese apartment amongst maids and furs and music with her mother, a famous singer, and father, a renowned author. As the years preceding the war continue, little by little the maids disappear, the once-grand apartment becomes worn and the family is faced with harsh decisions. Forced to leave for England to work as a house parlour maid while her parents, older sister and husband use the only four visas to America, her father sends her off to keep safe his latest novel, stuffed inside a viola Elise hasn’t played in years.
As an outsider to Tyneford, Elise is alone and haunted by her memories of her parents and sister. On her first night, she sneaks into the back garden where she rinses her face and hair under a water pump. When she meets Christopher Rivers, the head of the manor house, she bumps her head and he brushes away her wet hair from her forehead to see if she’s bleeding.
Later she thinks, “I can’t be certain that the moon was full, but if it wasn’t it ought to have been. Whenever I think back to that night, I see a white lantern of a moon hanging over the stable yard, the wind shivering in the marram grass. As in a dream, I am both the girl in the scene and some other self, watching her. I see Mr. Rivers sliding back the girl’s hair, and I feel the warmth of his fingers on my forehead. I watch that other Elise cross the yard and slip into the dark house.”
Elise’s long hair is “undignified and unsightly in a dining room,” says the head of staff and butler, and she is forced to cut off her long braid. With it goes a little more of her pride. Over the next few days, as she learns English and the exhausting duties that painfully stretch in front of her, Mr. Rivers shares his collection of her father’s novels, much to the chagrin of the other household staff. Finding spare free time, she steals away to the beach where she unleashes into the wind a tirade of newly learned profanity. It is then she meets the handsome, disheveled Kit, Christopher Rivers’ son returning from Cambridge. Soon they become friends, sharing a passion for literature and frivolity.
Elise learns this manor house is not like others, the normal rules seem to bend and twist as the war comes closer to England. She is swept away by her love of Kit, but soon he must leave to join the fight.
With Natasha Solomons’ exquisite prose, we are transported to the aging manor house, the windswept seaside and a bombed countryside. She has created an intelligent, heartbreaking plot with well-drawn characters fighting for hope in the midst of a country in despair.
To me, the novel hidden in the viola serves not only as a reminder of her father, but also represents the elusive, unreachable reunion with her family. I finished through a cloud of bittersweet tears and ached to read more, wanting to read from the start once more, knowing I would never again read with surprise those last magical pages.
I’m fascinated with WWII-era dramas and The House at Tyneford is about as perfect as they come. I am now reading Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, Solomons’ first novel, and eagerly await her next, which I understand she is finishing as I write this…