Book Review: House of Birds

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The House of Birds
by Morgan McCarthy
Out 3 November from Tinder Press
Hardcover, £18.99

Who’d live in a house like this? A house that’s “rather like a lovely face with a slightly broken nose and a gap in its teeth,” a house that is “queerly bewitching.”

Who’d love in a house like this? Now, that is a question. Someone, in 1915, writing a lyrical, longing letter to her lover away fighting in the war. Someone at home there in 1923, falling slowly, truly, for a man who’s not her husband, but who revels in the quickness of her intelligent mind. And someone else, in the present day, definitely male this time, who might be falling in love with the house — or one of its owners.

The House of Birds is beautifully and enthrallingly written. Every description is lush and apt, every joke lightly delivered, with the playfulness of a friendly wink from a twinkling eye. Dive in and surrender to the mysteries peeling back like layers of wallpaper, moving us through time, unveiling our changing tastes, and social conventions. Let yourself be reminded of our powerful urge to be understood; to find love with those who share our values and excite our intellects.

Present day sections, written in wry third person, focus on Oliver Mittell, newly adrift after leaving a high-flying, life-consuming job in The City, and several months into co-habitation with the girl of his dreams, Kate, whom he first met as a child, in Oxford. As kids, on a dare, they stole into the grounds of a mysterious house inhabited, as these places are, by a “mad old bat”, also known as Kate’s “evil aunt.” Climbing a vine, Oliver catches sight of wallpaper thick with birds of every description, which emblazons itself on his imagination as the epitome of exotic beauty.

Oliver’s flat, the antithesis of this rackety old house, sits high above London. Inside, sounds are softened by “mysterious trickery. . . the mechanisms that swallowed up the clunk of the loo seat dropping, the cupboard doors swinging to, even the sound of their feet crossing the floor that looked like wood but was tougher than wood, people having done a better job than the lackadaisical trees.”

It transpires that the Oxford house is now the subject of contentious legal wrangling between Kate’s family and the Calverts, a distant faction who insist they’ve a better claim to the place. Kate, a thrusting young woman whose career is on an zippy upward trajectory, has to go to New York. Despite qualms about the indistinctness of her legal position, Oliver offers to get things underway in Oxford, overseeing renovations in order that it might be sold to finance their future together. “[Kate] looks startled, but not hostile, as if the idea had flapped in as noisy and sudden as a bird. . . and perched in their flat. They both looked at it warily, wondering if it was going to shit down the back of the sofa. Nothing happened.”

The enforced absence will also give them breathing room. Kate, who likes a plan she can stick with, is impatient with Oliver’s career indecision, but at pains not to show her displeasure because she has a lot invested in being a good person. She is, as Oliver realises far too late, “the flawless archetype of a normal person, a platonic form; in the same way that a computer-generated perfect human face is absolutely average.”

Once installed in the house Oliver discovers a series of hidden documents written in the early 1920s by “Sophia”. Addressed to “Dear Reader”, written in an arch, ironic tone, they tell the increasingly worrying story of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to George, who was once the love of her life, but returned from war irreparably damaged.

McCarthy’s shrewd about the isolating effect of an unhappy marriage. Sophia ruminates on the friendship network that dissolved after George’s homecoming.”I had collaborated in the process myself; the careful unpicking of tightly sewn bonds. Not simply because I suspected it was either that or be the martyr of my empty hall table, a chimneypiece starkly bereft of invitations, but because I felt sorry for the hostesses who might feel a frisson of dread at the thought of George and Sophia Louis.” She remarks that he could go off at any moment, set off by something as simple as the arrival of dessert. “Like refined Pavlovian dogs we would sit in glassily tense anticipation, trying not to watch George.”

Sophia is a sassy bluestocking in a family of lightweights, most notably her sister, Boll, described as “Zuleika Dobson reborn as a narrow-hipped flapper, shaking the dreaming spires awake with her contentious hemlines and knife-edge bob.”

Despite her extensive reading, Sophia is hungry to keep learning as much as possible, especially about historical subjects. Attitudes being what they were in those days, she’s forbidden access the Bodleian Library without a man, or a letter from one, introducing her. She chances upon Christopher Konig, who comes to her assistance, offering to pretend he has a sister. Friendship blooms in the reading room — theirs is the most intellectually subtle flirtation — but Sophia is alert to propriety when she senses his effect on her. “My mind. . . wandered over to Christopher like a friendly dog, ignoring my sharp whistles.”

Back in the present day, Oliver’s confronted by Lena, whose family is the one contesting Kate’s right to the house. She’s understandably outraged by his presence and plans. It’s a classic meeting that will be familiar to fans of screwball comedy, and readers would be forgiven for anticipating a change of heart. Who wouldn’t wish Oliver the best? He’s a mensch who immediately takes Sophia’s side against the anti-feminist mores of her time (and husband), who loves the house in all its rackety splendour, who longs to step out of the fast lane, into one better matching his internal pace.

McCarthy has a striking knack for playing fair, and toying with our sympathies. Her characterisations are nuanced enough that even potential villains retain shreds of humanity and, to a degree, our empathy. In the tradition of the best golden age mystery writers, she’s adept at planting clues to themes and motifs that are common to both the historic and current sections of the novel, allowing us to think they point one way, only to realise later that the sign had been twisted round. As the book progresses, revelations come thick and fast. Tension escalates, notably in Sophia’s world, where things coming to a head feel likely to include violence.

Oliver determines that since he cannot save Sophia from whatever was her fate, history having already been written, he will save the house she’d loved. “In the short time he had spent here, he had felt a shift in its atmosphere, as if something benevolent was stirring after a long hibernation. It had warmed to him; it understood his intentions. or at least that was how it felt.”

With his life tumbling around him, Oliver undertakes one more journey, to the continent, searching for information about Sophia. What he finds is more startling than anything he could have invented — to him, at any rate. I had predicted the turn of events a good 100 pages earlier, but found them satisfying just the same.

As for the final three paragraphs concluding the novel, they are breathtakingly beautiful, stirring, and a perfect, well earned finish.

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