It is a cruel, ironical art, photography. The dragging of captured moments into the future; moments that should have been allowed to be evaporate into the past; should exist only in memories, glimpsed through the fog of events that came after. Photographs force us to see people before their future weighed them down…
Kate Morton, The Shifting Fog
This is a historical women’s fiction novel that will haunt me all the days of the rest of my life.
You know how sometimes there is a memory, a memory that can be so insignificant that you cannot understand why it simply won’t evaporate. And yet that memory is stuck in your brain, brand new, sparkling in its clarity.
That’s how this historical women’s fiction novel will always remain to me.
The layers are like a fine pastry with just enough sinful butter to separate them into distinction.
The Ephemeral Quality of Memory
Our heroine, Grace, comes to work at Riverton as a child. She really is a child, somewhere around 14, at the beginning of the 20th century. But the story is told through slips of memory from the dying Grace of the late 20th century. This is what I want to talk about first, because it’s the very thing that left me breathless with the entirety of the story.
The author’s exquisite portrayal of the artifice of our memory. Memory is a tricky thing, our mind slipping through time because the present cannot hold it down like it can physical objects. That’s what is so tricky about it. Grace embodies this trickery, and it’s through this duplicity that we learn of her life story. Through the slips of time in her memory, we glimpse her childhood at Riverton, of her coming of age, the unraveling of her own story underneath and through that of the family to whom she pledges her loyalty through servitude.
The slips are seamless, and there were times I needed to re-orient myself because the timeline had shifted. It wasn’t uncomfortable. It was like a dessert that is intense in its sweetness. It’s a shock, but then your tongue realizes what has happened and prods into the heart of the dessert, massaging it for more of that unexpected burst of flavor. And just like you yearn for the tartness of a sweet, so did I lean into the shifts in time that allowed this story to unfold.
There Be Ghosts
Morton does this again in the idea of ghosts lingering in spaces. This is a concept that fascinates me, and I relished the author’s exploration of the topic in this historical women’s fiction novel. Have you ever stepped into an old place, say your childhood home or an old stone church, and felt the past echoing around you? Through Grace’s slips in time and through the physical spaces of the story, the author highlights this very real phenomenon. The past leaves an energy imprint on the places it has been, and should we visit those places once more, the past will push back at us like a ghost. As Grace travels through the tunnels of her mind, through Riverton, through the house at Groversnor Square, we can feel this passage of time and the imprint it leaves in its wake.
The One Constant is Change
But while the author explores these metaphysical concepts of passing time, there is also the very tangible aspects of it. Grace’s story perfectly illustrates the changing social norms through the early 20th century to the late 20th century. Grace began her life as a servant, happily committing her loyalty to the family she served. But we know from present day Grace that she went on to do other things because she is referred to as Dr. Bradley. Through the events of history, World War I and the changing social norms the 1920s brought, we witness the shift in perceptions. This is reinforced through the actions of secondary characters. Alfred, Hannah, and Emmeline. These characters embrace the changing customs even while Grace stands still, a marker of the way things once were.
Things Are Not as They Appear
I don’t want to give spoilers here, but I do want to touch on another aspect that truly reflected this idea of shift and the mercurial nature of life. Through the story, the reader will witness a litany of family members, the changes they encounter, and the episodic periods of their life. Through this flow the roles are evened in their place in society. While Grace started out a servant to the Hartfords, it doesn’t end that way for Grace’s family. It isn’t revealed until the very end who key characters truly are, and this in itself is the ultimate ruse. All along the reader pictures Grace as this servant who overcame a societal structure that did not do her any favors when by the end of the 20th century, that societal structure had changed entirely.
The part of this historical women’s fiction novel that will stay with me always is the idea that it’s never the end until we say it’s the end. Grace kept changing. There wasn’t a before and after or a then and now. There were chapters. Change was the constant in her life, and her character rode that change to her ultimate success. But because of the consistency of change, can we ever define success?
The Shifting Fog was also published as The House at Riverton in 2008. I listened to the audio production and highly recommend it for the superb performance of the narrator, Caroline Lee. Kate Morton is an Australian-born author and has written six books. They were all New York Times bestsellers, and as I’ve read most of them, I can assure they are all deserving of the honor.
Have you read The Shifting Fog?
Tell us what you thought of it in the comments, but please no spoilers!