Review published on June 8, 2016.
A young man explores the secrets of a manor house library in this measured debut novel.
Samuel Browne is a twenty-five-year-old London banker whose life takes an unexpected turn when his wife, Sarah, suddenly leaves him after three years of marriage. Browsing the Charing Cross Road bookshops on a lunch break, he spies a twelve-volume set of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from 1825. Although it’s on sale for £200, he buys it on an impulse. He reads his purchase obsessively over the next lonely months, and one day turns a page to find a typed advertisement: “Diligent volunteer to carry out two months’ painstaking archival work for private library. Board and lodging provided; curiosity and imagination rewarded.”
Intrigued, Samuel phones the number provided and speaks to a Miss Synder, who confers with her employer and offers him the position. He promptly quits his job and travels by train to a distant village, where he will stay in Miss Synder’s stone cottage a quarter mile from Combe Hall. The next day he begins his work of combing through every book of Dr Arnold Comberbache’s 18,000-volume library in search of a hidden letter from 1770, penned by one Thomas Furey. No question about it: this is a needle in a haystack search, and the novelty of the treasure hunt soon fades into drudgery. Instead, Samuel busies himself with another quest: to understand the secrets of the Comberbache family, including Arnold’s seventeen-year-old ward, Rose, and another Samuel who perished on a mountain excursion. The Temple of Light, a folly in the woods, is the site of many family gravestones and poses as many questions as it answers.
This is roughly contemporary (perhaps set in the early 2000s, from what I can tell), but Samuel’s narration is highly old-fashioned, full of descriptive prose passages and detached, elevated language. The story could just as easily be taking place in the 1920s or 1950s, while Rose’s habit of reciting French is reminiscent of Adele Varens, Mr Rochester’s ward in Jane Eyre. Such anachronistic allusions make Combe Hall seem like a place outside of time, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. Here is my favourite passage, also a prime example of the style:
The idea of spring seemed fanciful; summer, impossible. I was cold for most of my waking hours—cold on the stairs, in the lane, in the library, in the facilities. The fires in the parlour and the doctor’s study acquired unexpected significance as radiant cores of comfort—the only other refuge was my double-blanketed bed, but there I had to rely on trapping my own treacherous radiance.
I loved the novel’s setup – who wouldn’t relish a chance to explore such a library? – but found the plot a little sleepy. Come expecting a deliciously bookish mystery like The Thirteenth Tale or A.S. Byatt’s Possession and you may well be disappointed. Also, I don’t think the title serves this novel well, especially given that it’s the same as a recent nature book by Simon Barnes. However, the physical book is gorgeously presented and Maloney has a distinctive style. I’ll be interested to watch his development in the coming years. I’d compare this to John Fowles’s The Magus, another mystical story set in a timeless place.
The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney
Scribe 9781925228298 hbk May 2016
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