Note: This review may contain mild spoilers.
Tyringham Park, by Rosemary McLoughlin, is a fascinating and unsettling book, a page-turner enlivened by clear writing and cruel characters.
I’ve been on an upstairs-downstairs kick lately, likely because of an interest in Downton Abbey, so I’ve been drawn to books that explore class division, like Manor of Secrets. At first, I thought Tyringham Park was going to present more of the same elements I associate with this kind of upstairs-downstairs fiction: poor little rich girls and poor little poor girls, luxurious country houses and inappropriate love affairs conducted in secret.
It turns out Tyringham Park has all these things, but McLoughlin’s use of these elements ends up being quite unexpected.
The book starts with, and revolves around, the disappearance of a beautiful toddler from an Irish estate, the Tyringham Park mentioned in the book’s title. The loss of this child, Victoria, has a massive effect on nearly everyone who knows her, from her absent mother and the kindly housekeeper to her vicious nanny, Dixon, and her uglier older sister, Charlotte. The only person who doesn’t seem that concerned is Victoria’s father, a military official posted to England on government business.
After Victoria vanishes, life trudges on, and things seem to get worse for just about everyone. The family travels from one great estate to another, but that doesn’t stop them from suffering through infidelity, emotional abuse, unplanned pregnancy, betrayal, and entrapment.
Several of the novel’s characters are cruel, nasty, despicable, or unlikable. Even some people who seem not that bad turn out to be awful, while others seem to rise above their nastiness only to sink into it again. The one character who turns out to be a nicer person than I’d originally anticipated is the same absentee father who didn’t grieve too much about Victoria. Absence is better than malevolence.
For much of the book, misdeeds remain hidden and evil characters bounce back from their defeats. (Of course, there are a few exceptions to this.) The book seems to indicate that suffering through a cruel childhood can make someone irredeemable. Charlotte, the poor little rich girl, is infected by childhood misery and abuse; Dixon, whom you could call the poor little poor girl, is one of the nastiest fictional characters I’ve encountered. She makes Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre look like Santa Claus.
The plot repeatedly surprised me in small ways, and the book has at least one powerful, final plot twist I didn’t see coming. I did find it a little disconcerting to spend so much time with characters whose unhappiness is so difficult to overcome and who struggle to find joy or to move past others’ wrongdoings, both real and imagined. Yet, simultaneously, I could hardly put Tyringham Park down.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Poolberg Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.