Twice longlisted for the Orange Prize for stories set in distant eras, Clark (The Great Stink, 2005; Savage Lands, 2010, etc.) takes on the dicey task of revitalizing Edwardian aristocrats grappling with the heir loss and social change ushered in by World War I.
The ancestral wick of Sir Aubry Melville and his wife— Eleanor to her extramarital companions—coils to ash with the death of their only son, Theo, killed in France before his Christmas letter arrives. Missing her golden boy, Eleanor consorts with spiritualists. “I’m not sure hush is what Eleanor’s after,” her mouthy youngest child, Jessica, snipes to a condolence caller. “She prefers the dead jabbering 19 to the dozen.” Ignored (as always) by their mother, and with presentation at court and weekend gaiety no longer an option—“Every man you might have married is already dead”—Theo’s teenage sisters, Phyllis and Jessica (call them Sense and Sensibility), plot their pacts with the new normal: the elder girl ducks her duty to reproduce by volunteering at a convalescent hospital, then pursues a degree in archaeology, leaving the younger trapped with their table-rocking mother and a father preoccupied by the future of Ellinghurst, the crumbling pile which by tradition must pass to males with the Melville surname. In doubt of ever being allowed to start her own life, 19-year-old Jessica bolts and cadges a job in London as the agony aunt columnist for a new women’s magazine. Clark reminds us that one of the pleasures of reading historical fiction is meeting characters whose thoughts are their own but also mirror the wrongdoings and legacies of their time. We commiserate with Jessica for having to jolly older men, only because they vastly outnumber the age-appropriate ones. She does her best to torment her mother’s godson, Oskar Grunewald, the most insightful of their childhood set. A math prodigy and hopeless stick-in-the-mud (by Jessica’s estimate, though not her sister’s), Oskar faces his own wartime challenge—his German heritage could scrub his chance of working with his scientific idol at Cambridge. Ironically, his loyalty to the Melvilles poses a greater threat to his career.
Vivid, layered, and provocative period drama about the trade-offs of backing tradition versus letting go.