Retreat into tradition

MASON'S RETREAT by Christopher Tilghman Chatto pounds 9.99
Writing in sepia is a risky business. It may please a certain kind of reader - a critic on the back cover here, sniffily recommending the author as "a useful antidote to much that seems to be happening in literature" - but, for everyone else, period style and detail usually tire quickly into anti-modern pastiche. And Tilghman's first novel sounds just that: a family saga, set on a crumbling Maryland estate in the Thirties, stiffened with long antique boards of sentences, echoing with every fogey's favourite author from Jane Austen to Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald.

It is not. From the book's opening, as the Mason family cross the Atlantic for America, their liner cabin on credit and English disasters foaming behind, Tilghman makes something new of his mini-series material. He achieves this, partly, with language: the "pebbly North Atlantic mist" that shrouds Edward Mason on his dawn constitutional; the "huge handslap of water" on the side of the ship's glasshouse as it pitches in a storm.

Then there is the premise these fresh-coined images sustain. Edward has abandoned a failing aircraft parts factory in Manchester. Instead he hopes to awaken the Retreat, his ancestors' empty plantation house, locked up and dampening on its silt peninsular for decades. "It could be quite gay, I think," he tells his wife Edith, with brittle promises of trips to "functions and balls at the embassies in Washington".

Edward's lunge for a lost past - the capital is alive with the New Deal, not official receptions - parallels Tilghman's own fondness for ancient devices. Behind a screen of trees, the Retreat is heavy with the Southern Gothic: a wizened estate manager, all-knowing black staff, the lingering memory of its last owner, a brutal Mason widow. For a time, Edward sets himself to restore the old glories, sweating over the estate's depleted herds and dragging silver from the attic, as Edith grows steadily dissatisfied in the age-old manner of bored fictional wives. A dinner for other local landowners fails, with a trickle of tiny embarrassments and an over-ripe Roquefort cheese. The Retreat gets stuffier.

Then the book widens its gaze to the land and sea around. Sebastian, the older and more restless of the two Mason sons, starts to prowl the dry fields with Robert, a bitter hired hand. Edith finds salvation landing at their dock from Chesapeake Bay, in the lean and predatory guise of Tom Hazelton, a yachting neighbour decades her junior. When Edward has to return to England - Hitler having revived the market for aircraft parts - Sebastian and Edith can scarcely contain themselves.

With the main narrator "gone as quickly and completely as a dinner guest", Tilghman's writing and plotting also breathe more freely. For all his skill with character - Edward, he writes, has "manners always larger than himself" - the book's heart is in the water and wind of the Bay, the creeks and crackling winter ice floes. The central events of Edward's absence happen out there, away from the small tensions of the Retreat. Edith forgets her marriage in Tom's hot little cabin one still afternoon; Sebastian sails out recklessly alone, looking for an escape from his father for good; the peninsular keeps slipping into the sea.

This fragmenting of order is reflected in the story-telling. Edith's flirtation with Tom is described first by a disapproving Sebastian, then in Edith's words, breathless with lust and disbelief. Edward's return is told by his younger son Simon, groping to understand why no one seems pleased to see his father. The resonance of these scenes take them beyond cleverness.

Less deftly, Tilghman folds grander happenings across the Atlantic into the final pages: Munich and the summer of 1939 add no drama to the Masons' day of family reckoning. Oddly, too, he feels the need to follow the climax with a philosophical commentary from a later Mason - a flash of postmodernism to clash with a resolutely pre-modernist tale. But the book's slow watery chapters have seeped in by then: Tilghman has made you want to read about old mansions again.