When Oliver’s girlfriend Kate inherits an elegant but crumbling old house in Oxford, her first instinct is to get rid of it. It’s been the object of a decades long family feud, so all she wants is to fix it up and sell it on.
Oliver volunteers to take on the renovations. But the longer he spends in the house, peeling back its layers and sorting through its curiosities, the more he senses that secrets are held within its walls. Then, among dust-coated books, Oliver uncovers the diary of Sophia Louis from the 1920s, and finds himself drawn into her word: one of passion and loss, in which the scars of war have yet to heal. And as Oliver turns the final page he’s left needing to know: who was Sophia, and how did her story end?
Within the beautiful cover of this book resides a dual-narrative tale; told alternately by Oliver (third person, present day) and Sophia (first person, via her 1920s diary).
Returning to the city of his birth, Oxford, for the first time in many years; Oliver finds himself inside the ‘house of birds’; previously owned by his girlfriend Kate’s aunt and the subject of an ongoing family feud between the Castles and the Calverts. On her aunt’s death; Kate inherits the house, and Oliver offers to project manage the renovations for her.
Oliver has held a fascination for the house since he was young, and climbed up some wisteria to get a glance in to a bedroom in an attempt to impress an equally young Kate. Staring through a bedroom window, he sees a beautifully intricate wallpaper of exotic birds; which sticks with him and which can also be found decorating the book cover.
Over the course of the renovations, as he tries to clear through the excess of belonging cluttering up the house, Oliver discovers ‘An Alternative History of the House of Hanover’, a personal history written by the mysterious Sophia Louis. Over the course of her history, we are presented with a detailed, absorbing and all-encompassing image of life in post-World War I Britain – in particular, the lives of women. She tells of a world in which she cannot legally enter the Bodleian library without a Fellow of the University, or a letter from one; and a time in which the right for women to study was granted too late for her to take advantage of it. Inquisitive, intelligent, and vastly knowledgeable of history; we feel her absolute frustration with a world controlled by men. Where, as Sophia testifies:
“The courts were for men: a place where there was no rape within marriage, where a wife’s murder was considered manslaughter, where the Sex Disqualification Removal Act failed to help the sixty-three female teachers in Wales, sacked because they were married.”
Sophia’s narrated sections are extremely detailed, evoking 1920s period details with beautiful precision; down to the tiles on the floor of her house. We are introduced to many characters over her history – her sister Boll, the complete antithesis of Sophia; utterly anti-feminist and shuddering at the thought that her daughter Daphne may have to work as a teacher when she grows up. Sophia’s husband George, returned from the war shell-shocked and an empty mirror image of his former self, depicts the way that the war affected families, husbands, wives.
As a reader, we are completely drawn into Sophia’s world – although Oliver is reading her history from present-day; her experiences, thoughts and troubles feel much more real, more pressing, than Oliver’s, though he is struggling with the feud and a strained relationship with Kate.
I found The House of Birds reminiscent of The Historian (but without the undead!) an engaging read; and a perfect balance of history and literary fiction.