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.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss