Retreat into tradition
MASON'S RETREAT by Christopher Tilghman Chatto pounds 9.99
Sunday 14 July 1996
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.
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 2 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 3 Robert Mugabe eats a zoo for 'obscene' 91st birthday party
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 The jihadi girls who went to Syria weren't just radicalised by Isis — they were groomed
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
James Bond: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming 007 film Spectre
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'