Sunday 28 July 2013

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Review: The Shell House by Linda Newberry

The Shell House by Linda NewberryThe Shell House by Linda Newberry (review copy) - The Shell House is a beautifully written and sensitive portrayal of love, sexuality and spirituality over two generations. Greg's casual interest in the history of a ruined mansion becomes more personal as he slowly discovers the tragic events that overwhelmed its last inhabitants. Set against a background of the modern day and the First World War, Greg's contemporary beliefs become intertwined with those of Edmund, a foot soldier whose confusion about his sexuality and identity mirrors Greg's own feelings of insecurity. This is a complex and thought-provoking book, written with elegance and subtlety. It will change the way you think. From Amazon UK

When I was first sent this to review, I wasn't sure if it would be my cup of tea. As you may have read, I'm generally not a fan of historical novels, so that aspect didn't appeal to me, especially as it was about the First World War. And I wasn't too sure about Greg's fascination with the house either. The story just didn't much appeal to me. I decided to give it a go anyway. I'm so glad I did, it's awesome!

A budding photographer, Greg takes an interest in the dilapidated stately home Graveney Hall, seeing beauty where others see ruin. When he looks more into the history of the house and it's destruction, he discovers Edmund Pearson, the heir to the home, died mysteriously around the same time the house was destroyed in a fire. Edmund Pearson was a soldier in the First World War, and Greg is determined to find out what happened to him. As we learn more about Edmund's story, similarities between his and Greg's lives are brought to light; for neither boy lives a life without difficulty.

The Shell House is a dual narrative, going back and forth in time the roughly present day and First World War, following the lives of Greg and Edmund. Greg is a sixth former with an interest in photography who finds a new friend in Faith, the daughter of a Friend of Graveney Hall who are doing the home up, and discovers he's seeing his friend Jordan in a new light. Twenty one-year-old Edmund is fighting in the First World War, where he met Alex, the man who opened his eyes to what love is. He is struggling to work out how to live the life he wants, with Alex, when he is expected to come home, take over Graveney Hall, marry and produce a new heir. Edmund wants a life of love, but has been born into a life of responsibility.

Greg is a photographer, Edmund is a poet. So each chapter, depending on who's it is, is opened with a description of a photo - a photo Greg took, a photo that Greg would have taken if he had his camera on him, or a photo he's seen - or a poem written by Edmund. The photos and poems relate to what happens in each chapter, and they give you a fantastic insight into the personality and feelings of each character.

Although their stories are very different, both characters experience similar things. There are questions of sexuality and religion, which also plays a huge part in the story, for both characters. Edmund was a believer who lost his faith, Greg was an atheist who starts to question. I find it interesting how differently Edmund and Greg view their sexuality. Edmund lives in a time where homosexuality is completely unacceptable but has no issues with his sexuality and is happy in his love for Alex.
'"I'm not really joking," he said,turning his head towards Alex. 'I mean it. I can't imagine a future without you.'Alex looked down at him and said softly, "Nor I".At moments like this, Edmund had the sense of everything settling into place. This, then, was love - not love as his father wanted it, all tied up with property and respectability and procreation. This was love that demanded nothing but itself.' (p93)
Where Greg, on the other hand, lives in a time where people are more accepting (though, granted, not as accepting as we could be) but has such difficulty coming to terms with and admitting the things he's feeling.
'Into his mind, vivid and disturbing, slipped the moment yesterday morning in the changing room when Jordan had turned and looked at him. It had only taken an instant, but there had been a sort of connection. An exchange, an unspoken understanding. He had stared openly at Jordan as he stood there naked; he had gazed for too long, and Jordan had seen and not minded. Jordan's glance had seemed to say: I know. It's all right.
God, what am I thinking? Is he - am I - does he think - do I--(p176)
'Greg walked back slowly, kicking at leaves, thinking about Jordan. I am not gay, he told himself. Not even remotely. Just because I--Just because he's always on my mind. Just because I'd rather be with him than with anyone else. Just because it's enough to be together, not even talking. Just because he obviously likes me the same way.Again, Greg thought of that glance, of what had seemed like a current running between them. But what had Jordan actually said? Hi. Ready in a couple of minutes, if you don't mind hanging on. Definitely not the words of someone who had just experienced a blinding revelation. Male bonding, Greg decided, that's all.' (p178)
 That's not to say Edmund doesn't have his own issues regarding his sexuality. His problems are more to do with outsiders' views and his faith.
'And Edmund, unable to reconcile his Church of England upbringing with what he had discovered about his sexual leanings, had been glad to discard God. Now, though, in his desperation, he yearned for the comfort of a father-figure who would listen and heed and intervene. He closed his eyes and tried to pray as he had never prayed before...Alex's suffering was a punishment for his homosexuality. And his own punishment was this: to be forced to stand by, helplessly, while his lover passed through torment and out of his reach.' (p115-156)
"Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination!" the Reverend Tillety quoted fiercely. "So it is written in the Book of Leviticus. And what is wrong in God's eyes cannot be made to seem right or justifiable, whatever the situation. I will not listen while you make excuses for your sin - if it is repulsive to me, imagine how much more repulsive it is to the Lord! You must realize, man, that not only is it morally repugnant, it is also a crime in the eyes of the law! Have you no shame?"' (p304-305)
These two passages show something I find really difficult to deal with. I myself am an atheist, but have nothing against religion and love people with strong faith. As I've been reading these books for LGBTQ YA Month, I've found myself worrying about young religious teens who are questioning their sexuality, and don't know how to reconcile what they feel with what they believe. I genuinely worry, because, god, what a position to be in! The thoughts they may be thinking! It hearts my heart, it really does. And then there are the religious people who treat gay people absolutely disgustingly, and they make me so angry! I may disagree with the views, but everyone has a right to their own opinion. However, no-one has the right to force their opinions and beliefs on another, whether it be preaching at me as an atheist, or scornfully telling an LGBTQ person that the way they live their life is wrong. It makes my blood boil. But back to the book...

There comes a point when conversations have to be had, and Greg can't keep his confusion to himself. Greg is flawed, he does some downright awful things at times, but it comes from fear and uncertainty, and I just wanted to give him a hug. Especially when Jordan comes out to him, and they have this conversation.
'"You didn't answer just now when I asked if you minded.""No. No, I don't mind. But if you're asking if I'm gay--"Jordan nodded, waiting.Greg shook his head. "I've never thought so. But it's doing my head in. I mean I fancy girls. I don't know any more - it's weird, all this--""All this what? What's doing your head in?""This is. You are. I think about you all the time." Greg's mouth wrenched itself into a grimacing smile; he shook his head, looking down at his clasped hands."What's funny?""Can't believe what I just said."' (p210-211)
The Shell House discusses faith and spirituality as much as it does sexuality. For the most part, despite what what I quote above, it's a separate discussion to what religion says about sexuality, it's more a discussion about whether God exists or not. There are so many different views shared, it's just so fascinating. Greg uses scientific advances and discoveries as reasons for there not being a God, but there are also thought out, believable arguments for the non-existence of God in Edmund's time, too, when scientific advancement is yet to come into play. It's less about religion, and more about belief, what each character believes to be true. Both sides of the argument are represented so well, I couldn't tell you whether Newberry is religious or not.

The Shell House is beautifully written. Some passages are just so deliciously put together, you want to read them out loud. Sometimes poetic, always gorgeous. The imagery is beautiful, and there are certain ideas the characters have, on love, on sex, on words, that really resonated with me because they are so like my own, but expressed in a way I would never have been able to.I have literally been copying out sections for myself, to read whenever I wish. If I was going to give this book one criticism, despite the beautiful language, Greg and Jordan used language that is a little old fashioned for present day; I don't hear teens saying "Blast!", "You little oik!", or "Damnation!" There is some swearing in the book, so it's not as if they're used instead of swear words. It just seemed a little strange and jarring.

The Shell House is an amazing story, about people, about a house, about love, sexuality and faith. A beautiful, wonderful story, and one I would highly recommend!

Thank you to RHCP for the review copy.

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Published: 4th September 2003
Publisher: Red Fox Definitions
Buy on Amazon US
Linda Newberry's Website


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