Ashenden is an old, yet still grand, English country house. Falling into disrepair over the years, it can still impress, even if it’s just by the enormous cash reserves needed to heat the place. When Charlie and his sister inherit the crumbling estate, the stress of how to care for the place takes a toll on their already distant relationship. The two begin consulting engineers and surveyors to determine what needs to be done and whether or not selling or renovating is in their best interests, or the house’s.
While a decision is made about the house’s future, its past begins to unfold giving the reader a glimpse of the people it has sheltered, the sorrows and joys felt in its rooms, and the memories that have seeped into its walls. We are introduced to the people that have walked the halls of the house from the architect who envisioned the grand space, to the staff who kept the fires burning, and the families that owned the property.
What I enjoyed about this book was the way all of the stories were tied together, each flowing smoothly into the next. It wasn’t about the people but how the house was transformed by the years from a money pit that was wanted more for the prestige it bought, but was ultimately unaffordable, to the original builder, the individuals that toured the house, and the sick it protected. The people come and go but the house itself is the one constant that brings everything together.
Ashenden is a mixture of short stories about the people that admired the grand house, found love and heartbreak inside its walls, and those that recovered in the green expanse that was part of the property. Its residents, owners, builders, all make and break the house and while the reader sees the past, it’s the current owners that are struggling with the future. I liked the way Wilhide smoothly moves the story along while it remains in place at the same time. It’s a very effective way to tell the story of the house and make it more than simply a structure of bricks, glass, and wood. It becomes a living part of the story, in fact, the story itself. With each new chapter, I wanted to know how it was holding up and what it had become in its new reincarnation as it does change with each new generation that walks through the doors. From the start, you know it’s not a simple home but something built and imagined to be more than that.
Many of the stories told here are very sad but overall I wouldn’t say that about the book. It made me smile many times, and even though the individual stories being told were not on the whole always happy, it was an honest look at the people who passed through the halls and that I could appreciate — nothing too sad but not all that happy either, a nice equilibrium of stories.
Wilhide is a writer who cares very much about the details and it is those details that make this story. Without the finer points and the clear image she creates of the house, this story wouldn’t work. The particulars create an invisible web that lets the story meander, but always bringing it back home. It’s such a lovely story and a satisfying read for a winter evening.
By Elizabeth Wilhide
Simon & Schuster