In Australian author Morton’s atmospheric first novel, a 98-year-old woman recollects her unwitting role in a fatal deception.
Grace, a prominent former archeologist, is living out her waning years in a British nursing home, when an American filmmaker, Ursula, asks her to consult on a movie about the scandalous 1924 suicide of a poet during a lavish soirée at Riverton, a country estate where Grace once served as parlor maid to the Hartford family. Extended flashbacks excavate the mysteries that surround Grace almost from the first. Why did Grace’s mother, herself a servant at Riverton before leaving under a cloud, send her 14-year-old daughter to work there? Who is Grace’s father? The domestic servant is a convenient expository device: Grace can eavesdrop on every Hartford family crisis. Hannah, her sister Emmeline and brother David occasionally visit Riverton, owned by their uncle, Lord Ashbury. Their father, Frederick, the second son, is an automobile pioneer. But World War I upends the destinies of the Hartford clan. David, his schoolmate Robbie and Grace’s heartthrob, Alfred, a footman, all go to fight. David is killed, Robbie drops out of sight and Alfred suffers shell shock. The war also claims the lives of Lord Ashbury and his eldest son, and Frederick inherits the title. Frederick’s business is mortgaged to American bankers, the Luxtons, who force a sale of his factory. To Frederick’s chagrin, Hannah marries Luxton scion Teddy, who, after flirting briefly with bohemian ways, reverts to stodgy banker-hood. Languishing in London while her estranged father lets Riverton decay, Hannah relies increasingly on Grace, now her personal maid. Hannah’s mistaken assumption that Grace knows shorthand leads both to make a tragic error in judgment. Meanwhile, Robbie resurfaces, his psyche scarred by war. Although ostensibly courting Emmeline, Robbie is drawn into an adulterous affair with Hannah that proves his undoing.
Though the climactic revelation feels contrived, Morton’s characters and their predicaments are affecting, and she recreates the period with a sure hand.