The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively – 20 Books of Summer

The House in Norham Gardens cover

This is my second book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively was first published in 1974. The setting is Oxford, a large rambling house at number 40 Norham Gardens, where 14 year old Clare Mayfield lives with her two elderly aunts. The 19 rooms in the house are stuffed with artefacts, nothing has ever been thrown away and the attic even has trunks full of her great grandparents’ clothes. Clare’s parents are dead and she has more or less become the carer for her aunts who are becoming quite frail. In the past the aunts had taken a lead in Oxford academic society and they have high hopes for Clare’s future which seem well-founded as Clare is a good scholar. However when Clare finds a strangely painted tribal shield in the attic it somehow preys on her mind. It must have belonged to her great-grandfather who had been a famous anthropologist. A combination of the shield and the money worries of running the household on a shoestring culminate in her schoolwork going to pot.

The aunts had previously agreed to having a lodger to help pay the bills and Maureen adds quite a bit of humour to the book. But more money is required and a young student of anthropology from Uganda moves in to the house too. John Sempebwa becomes a good friend as Clare shows him around Oxford and they visit museums, one of which exhibits tribal art.

This is a really good read and considering it was written 46 years ago it was way ahead of the times as it deals with British colonialism and the plundering of often sacred objects from other countries and cultures, something that academics are now arguing about and often unwilling to give up.

This book is set in winter and if I had realised that I would probably have saved it to read in winter, near Christmas maybe. It seems that Oxford suffers freezing cold and snowy winters. Poor Clare was often battling against snow and ice while on her bike. It helped cool me down during our recent mini heatwave.

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff – The 1965 Club

The Mark of the Horse Lord cover

Participating in The 1965 Club encouraged me to read The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff which I’ve had in the house for at least a couple of years. I would have read it sooner if I had realised that the setting is mainly in the exact place that I grew up – albeit some 2000 years or so earlier than when I was stravaiging about the land around Dumbarton Rock or Theodosia as the Romans called it, and Are-Cluta which is an ancient name for Dumbarton although it was more widely known locally as Alclutha. There is a handy map and glossary in my 1967 reprint of the book.

The Romans are in control of most of Britain and Phaedrus is a young red haired gladiator hoping to win his freedom after spending seven years as a gladiator. He does gain his freedom but a drunken night of celebration leads him into big trouble and imprisonment again.

He’s confused when he’s unexpectedly sprung from prison by a group of strangers, they had spotted how similar in looks Phaedrus is to Midris, their missing king. Eventually they talk Phaedrus into taking the king’s place and to try to eject the usurperer Queen Liadhan from Are Cluta (Dumbarton). Phaedrus will have to make the rest of the tribe believe that he is really King Midris. The real king has been blinded by Liadhan to make sure that he can never be accepted as their king again and he’s earning a living as a leather worker in the south.

While travelling north of the Antonine Wall to Dumbarton Phaedrus works hard at learning the history of all of the tribe so that he won’t be discovered as a fake Midris, and eventually a brutal battle ensues.

As you would expect of Rosemary Sutcliff this book is beautifully written, she does take some liberties with the geography of the area but not many readers would realise that. I was particularly pleased that she included an unusual character in the shape of a young warrior who just happened to be in touch with his feminine side when it came to clothes and jewellery. He was a bit of a fashion icon but the inclusion of Conory seems to have riled up the fundamentalist religious types one of whom cut her Goodreads rating right down to one star!!! for what she kept calling ‘content’. Honestly there is nothing in the least bit sexual in this book. Some people just go around their lives scouring everything for something they can object to, and if it isn’t there then they make up something that will feed their homophobia. I suppose it makes them feel superior somehow.
But we all know better don’t we?!

I’ll give it four stars on Goodreads. If you want to know what Dumbarton Rock (Theodosius) looks like have a keek at some of the posts on this link here.

For a much more detailed review have a look at Helen’s @ She Reads Novels
I read this one for The 1965 Club.

1965 club