February 25, 2012
A Jewish housemaid in England at wartime
Natasha Solomons is a British writer whose first novel, published in the United States in 2010 as “Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English,” should have received a wider readership. Inspired by the experience of the author’s grandparents, European Jews who fled Nazism for safety in England, that novel focused largely on the challenges and conflicts of assimilation. In the recently published “The House at Tyneford” (Plume, $15), Solomons returns to the Jewish refugee experience in England in the 1930s. If the plot of “The House at Tyneford” is perhaps less compelling than that of its predecessor, the novel nonetheless reflects its author’s prodigious talents and imparts another historical tale that merits readers’ attention.
“The House at Tyneford” opens in Vienna in the spring of 1938, just before Elise Landau, 19, is to leave for England, where she has found a position as a housemaid in Dorset. It will be a difficult adjustment for Elise not only because she has grown up in an affluent household with staff of its own—her mother is an acclaimed opera singer and her father an avant-garde novelist—but also because she will be leaving Vienna alone. Her parents are still trying to arrange their own immigration to New York, and her older sister, Margot, will soon leave with for northern California with her husband, an astronomer who “had been fired from the university [in Vienna] a week after the Anschluss” but has located an academic post in America.
Soon enough, Elise arrives in England. Solomons’ writing shines when it comes to setting and sensory detail, and she makes it easy for us to visualize her protagonist’s new home. Here, for instance, is Elise’s description of one memorable Sunday not long after her arrival:
I took a deep breath and filled my lungs with summer. The air was laced with the fragrance of a thousand wildflowers, and the sunlight made the snapdragons and foxgloves in the cottage shine vermillion pink. The entire countryside was smeared with color; the sky a bold, throbbing blue and beneath it the meadows sprinkled with buttercups, shining like gold coins. Back then, I didn’t know the names of the flowers—they came later—but now instead of patches of orange and yellow petals, I recall cowslips and creeping jenny. In the distance the sea sparkled and glittered, white spray crashing on the shore.
In commendable ways, “The House at Tyneford” echoes compatriot novels, including some of my own favorites. For example, although butler Wrexham and chief housekeeper Mrs. Ellsworth hardly replicate the romantic tension between Stevens and Miss Kenton from Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” their collaborative efforts to manage the household seem nicely familiar. (Readers may recall refugee Jewesses working at Darlington Hall, too; suffice to say that fortunately for Elise, Tyneford’s Mr. Rivers is no Lord Darlington.) Then, those who remember the framing device of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” — Charles Ryder’s return to the requisitioned estate with the British army during World War II — may think of it again when the house at Tyneford, too, is taken over for military purposes.
Still, I can’t help wishing that I hadn’t managed to anticipate nearly every key plot point. The fate of Elise’s parents seems obvious from the outset, as does the essential element of “upstairs-downstairs” romance that suffuses the book. Even lesser moments, such as the mean-spirited actions of one spoiled aristocrat-houseguest, often seem entirely predictable.
When unexpected wrinkles arise near the book’s end, readers may be left more confused than intrigued. In one case—the fate of her father’s final manuscript—even Elise appears to share my puzzlement. In another—an estrangement between Elise and her sister that lasts for decades—Elise’s single-paragraph explanation simply fails to convince. In fact, the novel’s entire last chapter seems shaky as its speeds across time to a conclusion.
Perhaps my enthusiasm for Solomons’ debut novel made me expect too much of this one. Perhaps I have spent too much time with other, similar stories. “The House at Tyneford” provides solid storytelling and another glimpse into experience on the margins of the Holocaust. But for this reader, at least, it offers few surprises.
Erika Dreifus is the author of a short-story collection, “Quiet Americans,” which Shelf Unbound magazine recently named one of the Top 10 Small-Press Books of 2011. She lives in New York City. www.erikadreifus.com