“Some houses you lived in; others lived in you” – from Ashenden
After their elderly aunt dies and leaves them her large country estate of Ashenden, Charlie and his sister, Ros, move into the home to determine whether they should keep it or sell it. The estate is in quite a state of disrepair and neither Charlie, a photographer living in New York, or Ros, a doctor living outside of Reading, can afford to keep it. However, Ros is reluctant to sell the property and see the house destroyed for the land or see it turned into just another hotel or golf course. Ashenden has a history to be protected and Ros can’t stand the thought of that being lost.
Weaved into the center of Charlie and Ros’ story line is the house’s history and that of its occupants. From the architect who built the home for a family who never appreciated its intended beauty to the family who bought it and brought it to life to its decline being used as a military training camp and later a POW site to Charlie and Ros’ aunt and uncle who return the home to its former glory, the history of Ashenden is as much about the house’s transformation and influence on the people who come into contact with it – those that own it and those that work there – as it is about the peoples’ stories that determine the future of the estate. It’s the human experience with all its highs and lows unfolding around the stone and mortar of the home, giving life and breath to what otherwise would remain inanimate. Without the people there would be no Ashenden, and without Ashenden’s influence the people wouldn’t be the same.
Ashenden is unlike any other novel I have read before and I found it thoroughly captivating. The author obviously has a great knowledge and love of architecture and design and it shines through the descriptions of the estate and its surroundings like a proud parent talking about a beloved child. It was a wholly original experience to see how the house left its mark on each person that came into contact with it and on the flip side how each person influenced the estate, whether that be for better or worse. There was continuity from one generation to the next, showing how the various occupants left their mark, either physically or figuratively, and influenced the ones that followed. This perspective really helped me feel immersed in the estate’s history and to feel present in the lives of the people surrounding it.
Another unique and interesting perspective is how Ashenden went beyond the changes with the house and its occupants to show how it fit in with the changes happening in England as a whole over the course of the life of the estate. For examples, when the wealth and influence of the titled began to decline so did Ashenden; the rise of self-made fortunes saw the rise in Asheden’s glory; and with the destruction and decay brought on by the two World Wars came the decay of the estate. It is an incredible way to track the progress of one small part against the backdrop of the whole of a country.
There is so much for a reader to love about Ashenden. Anyone interested in English history, architecture or the human experience – both upstairs and downstairs – would enjoy this book. I can’t imagine someone not finding something to enjoy in its layered story lines and I will, for one, miss my time spent at Ashenden.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.