The Valentine House
By Emma Henderson
From the Orange Prize shortlisted author of GRACE WILLIAMS SAYS IT LOUD, an entrancing novel about a young French girl and the English family who invade her Alpine village and her life.Tweet
Set in both modern times and the early 1900s, this is a novel about “the English abroad”. The common thread between the two time periods is Mathilde, an “ugly” from the local French village who was employed at a young age to work the summer season for les anglais. 60 years later and the family are still relying on Mathilde, who narrates much of the story. Not surprisingly she has accumulated a lifetime of knowledge about the family over many generations. She is finally forced to make a decision about whether to use some of this knowledge in order to resolve something she feels very strongly about.
There is a lot to like about this book. There are family secrets aplenty, a good, well-told story and a huge variety of characters, ranging from upper-class English to rural French farming folk. On the whole the book is gentle and evocative, with some great descriptions of the French Alps in both summer and winter seasons. However, it is also at times brutal and raw, exposing some of the less admirable character traits of the extensive cast and also depicting the harshness of an Alpine winter. The characters are well developed and each have their own individual personalities which are well developed.
I suppose the gentility of most of the book precludes a fast-paced narrative, but I did sometimes wish that the pace would pick up a little. There are also a lot of characters to get to grips with and I did sometimes find myself trying to remember exactly where each one fitted into the great scheme of things – as the story of the intervening years between the two time frames is gradually filled in, there are quite a lot of generations to grapple with. Thankfully a diagrammatic family tree is provided half-way through the book and I found myself referring to this quite a lot.
This is the first time I have come across Emma Henderson and I will certainly be looking out for more of her books. Apparently this is only her second novel so I hope she keeps up the good work.