As much as I love Downton Abbey, the comparison to Ashenden isn't fair and I suspect will lead many readers to underestimate and even pass over this gorgeously written novel-in-stories. The novel begins quite slowly with the rather-underwritten brother and sister Charlie and Ros who have just inherited the over two hundred year-old house from their childless aunt. I actually started this book a few months ago when I first received it and didn't continue due to my disinterest in the first chapter. Fortunately, I pressed on this time around and got to the second chapter that goes back to the construction of the house in 1775. I expected a kind of Edward Rutherfurd gallop across history but instead felt as though I was reading a very good collection of short stories, all loosely linked by place and poetic connections across time.
Wilhide wisely doesn't overdo the genealogical connections between stories, breaking up the ownership of the house while subtly alluding to the passage of time and generations. The main treat here is the beautiful writing, each story somehow capturing the language of each time from 1775 to 1844 to 1909 to 1976. The stories are a good combination of bitter and sweet and have a breathtaking sense of the passage of time and both the permanence and impermance of life. The writing was quietly poetic without being over-bearing, such as in this passage set in 1966 "Lavender clings to laundered sheets folded on the cedar shelves of linen closets. Vases of velvety roses sit on tables polished with beeswax. On summer evenings, the sweet perfume of nightscented stocks drifts through open windows...."
I happened to be reading this book during a time of incredible stress and upset at work - it was a very real comfort to come home to these stories and contemplate a deeper sense of life. As with any collection of short stories, there are weak moments. Oddly enough, I felt the book sagged a bit in the 1909 and 1916 sections - precisely the time periods that Downton Abbey fans would be interested in.
That's a small quibble about what is already one of my favorite books of the year - almost certainly a book that I'll want to buy a physical copy of and set on my bookshelf alongside other beloved novels.
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.