Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review - Elizabeth Wilhide's Ashenden

Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: January 8th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 339 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Time and neglect have been brought to bear on Ashenden Park. Occasionally loved and cared for, the great estate has fallen into the hands of two siblings after the death of their aunt. They don't know what they should do with this giant white elephant they have inherited. Going back through time to the houses beginning in 1775, James Woods is finishing the architectural touches for his new masterpiece to be wrought in Bath stone, though little does he know that tragedy will personally strike him and his employers will never finish the house. It's 1844 and a new family cares for and loves Ashenden, it is the home of their dreams and their children love it well, but their grandson is feckless. 1938, the house is once again in disrepair, cut up and sold for whatever money the current owner can get for a ceiling or a mantelpiece. 1946, the war arrives and a man who is a prisoner lives where one day he will return a house to lost glory for the aunt of two siblings. Ever rising and falling in it's luck will Ashenden Park be glorious ever again?

It takes a lot to make a house memorable in literature. I don't think it's something that you can set out to do, it's something that happens over time. Manderley, Number Four Privet Drive, Tara, Pemberley, all these places are held in the hearts of readers. We imagine what it would be like to go there, to walk through the woods, to gaze at the family portraits, to be immersed in the world of our favorite story. To us readers these are tangible places that we can visit, if only in our imaginations or between the covers of our favorite book. To have the conceit of following a house through time is at once intriguing and sheer folly. If Ashenden proves anything it's that the engendering of a house in literature can not be forced on us.

In order to fall for a literary house you have to fall for the story. A house itself isn't a story unless it's peopled. Would Hill House be evil and menacing without inhabitants? No, it couldn't be because there's no one to interact with it's bricks and mortar, there's no Eleanor. The house just sits there waiting for occupants. Why yes, Asheden does become occupied, but by having the narrative spread out decades apart over a hundred plus years with different characters there is no way to become invested in the story. The house is an empty vessel and here are some people who occupy it, but don't bother getting too invested in them, they'll be gone soon enough. If there had only been some overarching plot separate from the house itself, like in Mark Gatiss's Crooked House that weaves together hauntings of Geap Manor over a two hundred year period to a conclusive denouement, well, that might have been something I could have worked with, but sadly there wasn't.

As for these people who flit through Ashenden over time. I couldn't have cared less about them. Rarely were they nice or kind, usually they were self centered jack-offs. The way the book is written it's really just intertwined short stories. I'm not the biggest fan of short stories. I like scope. I like having a beautifully built world that I can immerse myself in, which is why I like television and miniseries more then movies.  Short stories are hard to invest in unless they are perfectly crafted little jewels that can stand on their own. By having the stories linked through Ashenden this is never possible. Each story with a jerk and a bump leads to the next and the next, with ever more unlikable characters that I didn't want to invest my time in.

But the short narratives weren't the most annoying thing. What really got me was this fine breadcrumb trail of characters and even objects that Wilhide wove through the book. So to recap, lots of unlikable characters I don't like and don't care to remember are peppered throughout the history of Ashenden like little Easter Eggs. Somebody hold me back. Sure, it's a cute idea, a way to link past and present, but sometimes cute ideas should not be employed because they annoy the heck out of your readers. It's gimmicky and gets maddening real fast. That stupid brown cow pitcher, and I have to say, I actually liked a pitcher of a brown cow more then anything else in this book. I liked an inanimate object more then the people. Um, that's a problem.

This is Wilhide's first fiction book, having written a plethora of books on design and architecture, and I have to say it shows. She was unable to create an engaging book. If her goal was to show the "living history" of the house, well, I guess she did that. Wilhide was able to show how the house changed and adapted over time from it's construction to it's current state of dilapidation, but it was a depressing show and tell that felt like I was reading about the slow death of the house sinking further into despair. Never did it feel like she was exulting the house, never once giving it the people it deserved. A pop star? Please no. Anyone who was nice to the house was skimmed over. One of those nice persons was name Florence Henderson, and I hope that this was historical, because otherwise, WTF Wildhide! No.

Houses all have stories to tell. But does this mean that the stories should be told? No it doesn't. What got me most was that anytime you almost felt invested the story would shift, much in the way Jeffery Eugenides Middlesex did, and you were back at square one, usually with an even more unsavory cast of characters. If you set out to do something unique and different go all in. Go epic, go centuries of detail and dirt. Don't reign yourself in, and don't under any circumstance ellipses over time with little introductory paragraphs at the start of each chapter that are ethereal and dreamlike but are really the type of amateurish and indulgent writing that should have been cut.


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