Cavendish Hall in County Cork has roots leading back to the early 1900s and beyond. With its sweeping drive, majestic pillars and the river peeping through the acres of land, Cavendish Hall is a statement building with years of memories woven into the walls. Following the death of her parents, Elenore Stack has inherited her childhood home and with the help of her boyfriend Donnacha, she begins to restore Cavendish Hall to the glory it once enjoyed. The years of passing from one set of hands to another have made repairs necessary and Donnacha takes over the task of reviving the life which once separated Cavendish Hall from the other estates. It becomes immediately clear, through Antoinette Tyrell’s use of dramatic irony, that the life which lit Cavendish historically was fuelled by people. Reputation and public opinion is one thing, but if there are no voices to lift Cavendish Hall again, it is an effort in vain. Walls need life, and at the very least, they need someone to listen to the life which still remains within the bricks.
Eleanore finds a diary which contains the essence of that very voice. Written by Edith Cavendish, the final member of the original Cavendish family and hidden in a passageway under the house, the diary provides the additional layer in the novel which is needed to provide a contrast between the increasingly negative relationship between Elenore and Donnacha and the reckless love depicted on the pages of the diary. The diary allows another strong female voice to enter the narrative and was a clever plot decision by debut author Antoinette Tyrrell.
Edith was protected by Cavendish Hall from the ruthless warfare between the English landed members of the gentry and the Irish who had been made to work the land which had once been theirs. Edith’s ignorance, stemming from her secure place in the aristocracy gave her cause to look beyond the walls where she found love. This love was short lived and vibrant, the kind that only first love can be and without cliché or embellishment, she was filled with fire and a lust for new beginnings which saw her leave her beloved Cavendish as it burned to the ground behind her, leaving her story and her diary behind her.
We all are guilty of attaching ourselves to properties and material items, granted our attachment is unlikely to be associated with somewhere as classic as Cavendish Hall but we all have somewhere, and Antoinette Tyrell, in her fresh and direct way, saw this about us and created two formidable characters to speak for us. Edith and Elenore, years apart, both share an aching love for Cavendish Hall. Their families, long gone, still walk the halls in their eyes, they remember their heartbreaks, their loves, their stolen moments and their childhood; that beautiful elusive part of our lives against which we will eternally measure our choices.
When I first began to read this, I was prejudiced against what I saw as a tame plot and I had no real interest in pursuing this. Then the plot opened up and I saw 2019 for the truly glorious year of celebrating the female writer. Tyrrell handles a toxic, controlling relationship with a quiet dignity, respectful at all times of the reader. She also gently reminds us of our childhoods and how extraordinarily special those memories are. On the surface, this is a ‘feel good’ novel, but if you gently nudge, you will see the strength of what she has crafted underneath. When the safety supports our families built around us are removed, and our families are long gone, can we stand without that support?
(c) Dymphna Nugent
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