SECOND OPINION: The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney

Review published on March 11, 2018.

Sam Browne is a young man working in banking when his wife suddenly leaves him. To console himself he starts a search for a monumental book to read and finally decides on buying an 1825 edition of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 12 volumes. Then, near the beginning of the seventh volume, he finds a small notice glued to a page, advertising for a volunteer for two month’s archival work in a private library. When Sam applies and gets the job, his seventeen weeks at the remote and ancient Combe Hall, and his acquaintance with its elderly owner Arnold Comberbache, begin.

This all sounds very mysterious and indeed it is, especially when Sam finds out that his task is to find a long lost old letter which is hidden somewhere in the eighteen thousand books in the library. In the course of doing this he discovers a lot about the family who have lived in the house, and also about its present set of eccentric inhabitants and visitors. But this is definitely not a straightforward thriller. It’s a rather slow and meandering story with many digressions, especially about the books Sam has to search through to find the letter.

It’s a fascinating book which contains so much detail that it needs to be read slowly. It could be read just for the plot but so much would be lost. One of the main delights of the book is the wonderful and vivid descriptive passages, of architecture, but especially of the natural world, birds and plant life. In fact, they play an important part in the book. It’s also full of discussions about literature and of philosophical discussions about life and death. It’s an ideal novel for the lover of English literature and made me feel how deficient my knowledge of the subject is!

The mystery of the letter is, in spite of the many digressions, enough to keep the story going and the ending deliciously ambiguous. A treat for the bibliophile and a book that I think I’ll need to read again to appreciate fully, and one that would benefit greatly from a reading group discussion.

Sue Glynn 4/4

The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney
Scribe UK 9781911344841 pbk Mar 2018

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