My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“I felt the shadows draw around the house. They went up with the blackouts while I was sleeping, but when Mrs. Ellsworth unfastened the blinds, the shadows remained.” Elise Landau, main character.
1938 Vienna. The Landau family is Jewish, and they had a lovely, almost idyllic life, full of music and literature, until the Nazis interfered. Now they must endure a painful separation, fleeing to safer places for the duration. Eighteen year old Elise must go to Tyneford, England and work as a housemaid to the Rivers family, of the landed gentry. Her change in circumstances is difficult and trying, but when Kit, the heir to the estate, comes home on a visit from college, he and Elise fall in love, much against convention. To marry one’s maid, and a Jewish one at that, is simply not done. But the Mr. Rivers is kind to Elise, selling a valuable painting to acquire the funds to bribe Austrian officials into issuing exit visas for her parents. Then war, at last, breaks out, and each day becomes a waiting and hoping game.
There are two story lines in this novel, both centering upon the massive changes that war imposes on “life as usual” for civilians. The main thread concerns all the heartache and obstacles that young Elise must endure and overcome, and the other, the struggles faced by the Rivers family and their staff as they helplessly watch their traditional way of life crumble around them. This is a character driven book, in which the butler and housekeeper, Kit’s social companions, and various villagers are drawn as palpably as are Elise, Kit, and his father. The plot is simple and unfolds slowly. Natasha Solomons is truly gifted in her ability to conjure evocative, often poetic images, the atmosphere as a whole charming but decidedly melancholy. And she deserves credit for preventing the elements of romance from overwhelming the story and obscuring its themes. True to form, the ending is bittersweet. While some reviewers have criticized it as unrealistic and too convenient, for me, it hit the right note. Though quite different from Austen’s Jane Eyre, in some places I found Tyneford somewhat reminiscent in terms of location and the plight of the heroine.
An interesting side note: Tyneford, and much of the novel’s plot, are based upon an actual Dorset village, Tyneham, where remnants of both the manor house and the village now comprise a museum of sorts.