Email this review


A well-upholstered (271-page) novel with the characteristic British combination of new family, old house, and ancient mystery--the last of which, in this case, never develops. The new family is formed when mystery-writer Ted, father of 14-year-old Penelope and her older brother, marries archaeologist Valerie, who has three younger children. When Valerie becomes co-director of a summer dig at a Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, the family moves into a grand, university-owned house--once, however, the bad-luck dwelling of a landlord hated by the Robsons, local farmers. Now Archie Robson, who bitterly resents all intruders, wants the archaeologists out; and he plagues them with nuisances and worse until, setting a brush fire during a bad drought, he succeeds. But meanwhile, despite Valerie's ban on the troublesome Robsons, Penelope becomes friendly with Archie's younger brother Randall. Though she never sympathizes with Archie, Penelope comes to associate the Robsons with the conquered Briton in a Roman memorial and with all the locals before and since who belonged to the land and remained there through diverse invasions. (From his speech, manner, and attitudes Ran could well pass for one of his distant forebears.) So too, the archaeologists are vaguely cast as the latest invaders. Local history hovers in the air and there is much earnest talk about family adjustments and much puzzling on Penelope's part over her tentative relationship with Ran. But Penelope has very little part in what happens (and very little happens). She is forever summing up the situation and trying to understand people, but her thoughts are rather ponderous. The family relationships, the locale, and the interface between them would make a substantial, atmospheric background for a conventional story, but the story never materializes. Penelope feels the house's bad vibrations; Ted goes sniffing into local history and present activity, indicating a new book afoot; Valerie digs away at the Roman bathhouse, sure of a find--but nothing comes of any of this. There are other, smaller let-downs: Off on a forbidden outing with Ran, Penelope returns home with foreboding as she has left her small stepsister alone; but all that has happened is that Ted yelled at the child for bringing a dog in the house. In the end, everyone just drifts away, and despite the raging fire, the story does too.

Pub Date: March 13th, 1980
Publisher: Atheneum.