Magazine article The Spectator

Stately Home Blues

Magazine article The Spectator

Stately Home Blues

Article excerpt

THE BIG HOUSE

by Helena McEwen

Bloomsbury, L12 99, pp. 186

Considering that the experience of some sort of childhood is common to every writer on the planet, it is odd that a convincing child's perspective is such a rare achievement in a novel. But it's not so hard to know that describing a view from the knees down, and calling it childhood, is an insult to any six-year-old.

The Big House is about a little girl, Elizabeth, who lives in a whopping stately home (complete with chapel and ha-ha) with a lovely family and fleets of servants. She eats jammy dodgers for tea, plays soldiers with her brother in the woods, and occasionally gets a smack from Nanny. Mama ignores her, which is horrid, and Papa gets squiffy if he can't pay the bills. When, in their twenties, two of Elizabeth's siblings die, Elizabeth goes back to the house and remembers them.

Reading The Big House is rather like listening to someone describe a dream. The lack of structure, pace or progression is just as wearing, and despite a beautifully evoked relationship between Elizabeth and her brother James the style is that of 'What I Did in the Holidays' commissioned by Harpers & Queen. Each page exhibits a deadening technique -- 'I look . . . I look back . . . I begin . . . I begin . . . I begin . . . I run . . . I go . . . and sit . . . I blink' -- that reduces the terror and thrill of being a younger sister to trundling about like a toy dog on wheels. However gripping the episode, stylistic flaws lurk in wait: hopeless lapses of dialogue (the children into small talk and the adults into cliche), embarrassing vernacular, plodding characterisation of servants and parents. …

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