I love the sensation of freshly read novels percolating away in my mind. Like a deliciously brewed coffee, time and concentration filter away extraneous details as themes and flavour strengthen, simmer and crackle. One of the many stories on the stovetop of my mind at present, is The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton.
I’ve been curious of this particular author for a while. In the summer of 2011-12, my little trio road-tripped across the Nullarbor with our camper trailer, a few tonnes of water and books – the essentials. I distinctly remember seeing the audibook of The Shifting Fog at every roadhouse we stopped by. Finally, I decided to give the debut novel a go to kick off my participation in the Australian Women Writers challenge.
And you know, I enjoyed this novel. Let me tell you about it.
The Shifting Fog is told from the perspective of Grace, a 98 year old woman who recounts her life as a young maid at Riverton Manor during a turbulent time where a famous war poet, Robbie Hunter, committed suicide. In the present day, a movie is being made about the tragic death, and the sisters Hannah and Emmeline who witnessed it. When approached by the director, Ursula, for an interview, Grace, who has spent a lifetime forgetting the events, is plunged once again into her youth and the events that darkened and shaped her life.
Ultimately, to me, the story was about Grace and her relationship with Hannah, the grandaughter of the lady of Riverton, whom Grace serves. Though there relationship is unequal, it is the bearer of secrets, and pivotal in shaping the events that transpire in the early 20th century.
Set in 1920’s England, the two eras are juxtaposed: the 1920’s aristocracy, propriety and naive belief that society will never change; to the early 21st century: where love and marriage are no longer a given, women aren’t as bound to their positions, technology continues to change the ever-changing world, and war is no longer shrouded in glory.
The gothic novel is fairly predictable, it’s not too hard to piece together the events that transpired at the lake at Riverton Manor. Having said that, I enjoyed this story, I enjoyed Grace’s narration – though I’m not sure it can be trusted. Even if the memory of a 98 year old woman wasn’t fragile, time and guilt have a way of warping events, don’t they?
Thematically, there are many issues touched on, though not delved into deeply. Nothing I wouldn’t have expected to be present: class, economics, pre and post-war ontologies and particularly women, marriage and the roles of both in an aristocratic society.
One aspect of the novel that struck me, and I imagine this is highly intentional, is the motif of secrets and inheritence. The most significant heirlooms passed down through generations are not always objects, but ideas, beliefs and secrets. Grace was born into a world of secrets, bearing her own, carrying them for others, and discovering some along the way. Secrets serve almost as a roadmap, the most ancient of GPS systems, navigating and dictating the life-paths on which to take – whether one wishes to, or not.
When all the details filter away on the bubbling stovetop of my mind, the question I am ultimately left with is this: did any of the main characters, Grace included – with their varying positions and opportunities in society, actually live the life they wanted? And if so, was it worth the price? Today, I would suggest not, tomorrow, I might feel differently. Read the book for yourself and let me know if you disagree.
I liked The Shifting Fog and am keen to explore more novels by Kate Morton.
Let me know what you think!