Posts Tagged ‘The Houses In Between’

the houses in between reprint society howard spring 1951 001The Houses in Between by Howard Spring ~ 1951. This edition: The Reprint Society, 1954. Hardcover. 568 pages.

My rating: After some deliberation, I cannot honestly give this less than a 10/10. This ambitious novel certainly has some flaws, but the overall reading experience, to me at this point in my life, was utterly satisfying.

A week or so ago I posted a quick teaser about this novel, and I am happy to report that it more than fulfilled its promise. It took me quite a long time to work my way through it, both because of general busy-ness in my real life, and my reluctance to rush through the book. Fine print, thin pages, and rather intense content made it crucial to be able to really concentrate; it was not a particularly “easy” read, though I did find it completely engaging.

On her third birthday, May 1, 1851, young Sarah Rainborough visits the newly-opened Crystal Palace in London, and the experience so impresses her that it becomes her earliest vivid memory, to be referenced throughout the rest of her long life.

I am not going to share many more plot details than this, as the story was most rewarding to me as I read with no prior knowledge as to where it was all going to go, and there were some surprising developments.

Written in the first person as an autobiography, with Sarah starting to record her life in her later years and the tone very much one of “looking back”, there are of course many references to future events, interweaving Sarah’s past and present and going off into short tangents here and there. Sarah’s fictional life covers ninety-nine years of a history-rich century, and though as a member of the upper middle class our narrator is cushioned from the harshest realities of her time, she is fully aware – at least in retrospect – of what is going on all around her.

The strongest part of the book to my mind was the portion regarding the Great War. The author, using his character’s voice, is bitterly sincere in condemnation of the brutal destruction of an entire generation of the best and brightest of England’s –  and Europe’s – young men, and the impact of their loss on the structure of society as a whole, and on the families and individuals left behind.

Part social commentary and part good old-fashioned family drama – Sarah’s personal life and the lives of her family members are chock full of incident, some spilling over into positive melodrama – the book is by and large very well paced and beautifully balanced between fiction and history.

Here is the author’s foreword, which tells of his intentions. I must say that I thought he pulled it off rather well.

the houses in between howard spring author's foreword 001

Howard Spring made a commendably good job of voicing his narrator; occasionally it felt a tiny bit forced, but in general he drew me in and kept me engaged. The latter chapters, covering Sarah’s extreme old age, were particularly believable, as the narrator is shown to be letting herself go a bit, both in her recording of the current phase of her life, and in her relationships to the people around her, as she deliberately eliminates strong emotional feelings regarding her descendants and looks more and more inward, preserving her energies for herself.

An author whom I shall be exploring in the future. I very much liked what he did here, though no doubt some of the appeal of this book is in that it describes the long life of a rather ordinary woman, and I am myself in a reflective mood regarding the life of my own mother, who died just over a month ago at the venerable age of eighty-nine, a decade less than our fictional Sarah’s, but still impressive, when one considers the societal changes that occurred in her (my mother’s) life as well.

Well done.

For more reviews:

The Goodreads page has several succinct and accurate reviews by readers.

Reading 1900-1950 has a detailed review, with excerpts, as well as links to reviews of several other of the author’s novels.

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A most intriguing article here demands further investigation. And I must just add that *I* used to live in Didsbury, too. Well, okay, I must confess that it was not the same Didsbury. Mine was the tiny village in Alberta just north of Calgary, named, one assumes, after the original one referenced here.

Howard Spring – never heard of him until this happy impulse buy of The Houses in Between ( 1951) – I picked it up and put it down a few times while in the bookshop and then decided to go with it. It cost me a lordly two dollars. (Same as a cheapo lottery ticket, and with more chances of winning!)

So far a definite winner. I’m on page 221 of 568 and I have started rationing my reading because I want to spin it out slowly. Luckily life is frantically busy right now so it’s not too hard to put it down as more urgent things call, so it might even last me a few more happy days.

It’s the fictional autobiography of a 99-year-old woman, and is set in Victorian London (the narrator’s first memory is of a visit to the newly opened Crystal Palace) and then at a drawn-from-life Cornish estate. And it is really, really good.

So I feel like I should have heard of Howard Spring before. Am I the only one out of the loop? Or are all of you chuckling at my obliviousness regarding his novels? Is he wonderfully well known in Great Britain, and am I living in Colonial Oblivion regarding his stuff?

According to Wikipedia, Howard Spring was Welsh, and worked as a journalist while also writing a series of increasingly successful novels. All of which, now that I’ve had a taste of his quite engaging style in The Houses, sound terribly intriguing.

That’s all for now! Hoping to be back soon with some bookish posts, once the smoke clears, both literally and figuratively.

Chokingly smoky in the valley this morning from our personal just-around-the-bend forest fire. Like standing in the wrong spot next to a partially smothered bonfire. Lots of ash in the air, too – was painting outside yesterday afternoon and this morning my shelves and cupboard doors which I left out on sawhorses are dusted liberally with bits of charred fir needles carried on the wind from several miles away.

Luckily the paint had already dried fast – no harm done. 🙂



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