Weightless in Maryland

Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman Chatto, pounds 9.99
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The old and new worlds are intriguingly transposed in Christopher Tilghman's debut novel. When the Depression forces Edward Mason to return with his family from England to America, he considers it, in every sense, a retrograde move. For Manchester represents a world of industry and opportunity, whereas Maryland, in which his ancestors settled nearly three centuries before, is stuck in a dream of its past.

Tilghman's accomplished novel explores the effects on Edward, his wife Edith, and two young sons, Sebastian and Simon, of living in the aptly named Retreat. Edith, having endured a string of humiliations and infidelities, has put both husband and house on a year's probation but she mellows when she falls in love with a young neighbour. Simon, at six, is a golden boy who is at home anywhere, while 14-year-old Sebastian, who despises his father as a failure and loathes England (where he was subject to a sexual assault) finds unexpected roots at the Retreat and a friend in the black farmhand, Robert. When his new security is threatened, he prepares to rebel.

The world outside the Retreat makes little impact, in spite of Edward's involvement in preparations against Hitler, but Tilghman offers glimpses of colourful "old" families and of the farm manager and his wife, a dour couple straight out of "American Gothic". The richest subsidiary characters are the servants, Valerie and Loretta. While Edward dismisses the family history, they are determined to keep it alive, from a deep sense of grievance.

Tilghman writes elegantly in long, languid sentences which evoke the Maryland atmosphere and vivid elemental descriptions, in particular of the sea which, calm, rough or frozen, plays a crucial role in the story. He is deft in his handling of symbolism, such as Edward's accidental bloodying of Simon as he kisses him goodbye, indicative of the deeper wound with which he leaves him, or Sebastian's decapitation of a snake when he is left master of the house, a moment that proclaims his triumph over his father. He creates succinct poetic images: the "humid despair" of a man in a sultry hotel; a post-coital couple "dripping and slick"; the creek full of bird droppings that "smelled like fermenting corn".

Nevertheless, for all its many felicities, the novel lacks weight. The family saga never attains the mythic dimension that its author clearly intends. The references to ghosts seem more of a literary device than an emotional reality. Characters do not behave as they do because of the weight of tradition, however much Tilghman might wish them to. Nor do they come to symbolise the death of patrician America or whatever else their descent from the founders of Maryland might represent.

The novel has been much praised in America, with critics evoking the names of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Styron and O'Neill. This is a rightful tribute to the assurance of the writing, but it also highlights the reader's sense of deja lu. Both subject and treatment are all too familiar. Tilghman's remoteness and control leave the reader admiring but unmoved.