Welcome to my stop on The House of Birds blog tour!
About the book
Published: 3rd November 2016 (Tinder Press)
Oliver has spent years trying to convince himself that he’s suited to a life of money making in the city, and that he doesn’t miss a childhood spent in pursuit of mystery, cycling the cobbled lanes of Oxford.
When his girlfriend Kate inherits a derelict house – and a fierce family feud – she’s determined to strip it, sell it and move on. For Oliver though, the house has an allure, and amongst the shelves of discarded, leather bound and gilded volumes, he discovers one that conceals a hidden diary from the 1920s.
So begins a quest: to discover the identity – and the fate – of the author, Sophia Louis.
Partly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s experience of being turned away from the Bodleian library, and the role of women in academia in the 1920s, Morgan McCarthy’s fourth novel is an interrogation into how we represent ourselves and our histories to others, and how human curiosity compels us to investigate and unveil the truth.
Intro to the novel, Oliver, Sophia and what inspired me to write it by Morgan McCarthy.
The House of Birds is about the discovery of a diary in a neglected house; a writer and a reader almost a hundred years apart. The writer is Sophia, an intelligent, unhappy young woman living in the 1920s: trapped in her marriage to a shellshocked former officer, unable to work or study history, a passion of hers. She begins her diary with the decision to do what she wants – even if she has to lie; even if it puts her in danger.
The reader is Oliver, a 21st century man who has just quit his high-paid job in the city and is feeling a bit lost. When he offers to help his girlfriend do up the house in Oxford she’s inherited (a house which is also the subject of a bitter family feud), Oliver finds the diary hidden inside another book. He begins to believe that it might not only resolve the family feud over who gets the house, but close a long-unsolved murder case. But it becomes apparent that it’s not as simple as that, and that he doesn’t know what Sophia’s up to at all.
The novel was inspired by a few things that came together in my mind over a long period of time. Various loves of mine began to form relationships. History both ancient and modern, the city of Oxford, ruined houses. Birds, both real and on paper. The 1920s has always been one of my favourite eras: not only for the side of it that was all jazz and flappers and cocktail parties, but its darker side. The grief following the first world war, the huge unemployment and inequality, the treatment of women. I’ve always remembered Virginia Woolf’s account of not being allowed into the famous Bodleian library in Oxford, because she was neither a (male) fellow, nor had a letter of introduction from one. I knew even at University that this incident would find its way into a book somehow. And in the House of Birds it represents the essence of what Sophia finds herself up against; what she determines to find her own way through. Unlike Woolf, she can’t speak her outrage, she can’t publish it; she has to be sneaky. The path she chooses is oblique, circuitous: necessitated by her powerlessness.
The other love of mine that has been put into the book is mystery. Like Oliver, I’ve always been curious (nosy) about old houses, ancient whodunnits, secrets, other people’s diaries. I hear something unanswered or incomplete and I feel an intense need to know what really happened. To get the ‘real’ story. But experience has taught me that real stories are hard to come by, and the book is partly about that. Can you ever have all the answers, and if you get them, are they ever satisfying?
Prologue from The House of Birds
It’s been a long time since I heard from you, but I keep writing, in the hope that you are receiving my letters. I do try not to worry, but find I can’t help it, and a letter from you would mean so much. I can never tell you how much I love you, and how desperately I miss you. I thought today about the Anglo-Zanzibar war, supposedly the shortest in history, recorded at thirty-eight minutes. That was how long it took for the English to see off a sultan they didn’t much like and replace him with one of whom they were fonder. I wish it were that war you had gone to fight.
Have I any news for you, I wonder? Nothing much. I am still volunteering at the hospital. Boll has occupied herself by falling in love, or so she says, with a very handsome man, despite complaining that the house is a gaol and she will die alone here, driven mad by the tiny noise of Mother’s needle going in and out of her cloth, endlessly, though the sound of steel against silk could never really be heard over the noise of Boll telling us how deathly bored she is, and in any case – as you might remember – Mother never actually does any sewing. She’s been working at the same piece for nearly a decade, and still nobody knows what it will turn out to be. Boll’s guess is a death’s head. My money’s on something subtle, but no less devastating.
Anyway, I’ve no idea whether Boll’s suitor is suitable, as far as the business of suiting goes. He seems rather . . . raffish? She seems besotted; wants to talk about him every day . . . where he might have been, whether he has thought of her. And so on.
For this I have some sympathy.
Mother is planning to redecorate the house. I find the idea of this unutterably dreadful. Father wouldn’t have had it, and though I don’t approve of men putting their feet down, I do wish he were here and he would. I can’t bear to think of the house being prodded and pried at and all its beauty peeled away. I suppose you think me melodramatic. Perhaps I am, a little, but I can’t help but feel the house is rather like a lovely face with a slightly broken nose and a gap in its teeth, and if those things were fixed it wouldn’t be so beautiful, or at least not so queerly bewitching. The tiles might be worn, but they’re worn in the shape of our feet; of our ancestors’ feet. Not to mention the dented dining table (clumsy Victorians) and the crooked chiffonier (slapdash Edwardians) and the frayed fauteuil from who knows when. And what will become, too, of the blameless birds of paradise – my childhood companions – and Comanche, my confidant; none of them committing any crime other than that of being over a hundred years old, and I never heard of centenarians being bumped off, to make way for fresh, modern humans. And you understand, I know you do, the feeling the house has; of all the years collected in it, like a treasure house. I’m convinced that’s the source of the peculiar atmosphere you remarked upon, the luxuriating ease of it, like a lion lolling in the sun, the quietness in the mid-afternoon, when it is filled with light even in winter, and nothing but the sound of the grandfather clock ticking and my mother’s mouse-like rustles. (In this picture, Boll has not yet come back from luncheon.)
I was ill, quite recently. I don’t mean to concern you, simply to explain the gap in my letters, if you have been receiving them. Anyway, it’s all over now. I shall explain when you’re home, by which time I expect it will seem like something very small, and not even worth mentioning.
It is cold and dark here; the night dropping down each evening like a great black bear. (I know I told you I would never talk about the weather, but it seems I can’t help myself.) Everybody seems to have forgotten the imminence of Christmas. I have already crossed it out in my mind. We must celebrate it when you’re home, even if that turns out to be February, or June. Do you know, when I think of you, my memories are always of sunny days – despite our having had our share of sleeting walks, and hats blown off, and wet wool socks – rather as if the past has begun to seem haloed by eternal summer, when really it was probably only a few weeks of sunshine, and the rest rain.
Do you remember the day we sat in the garden here, drinking wine and making plans? I can picture it so well: the house hung with flowers; the sun moving at half its usual pace across the flawless blue sky. We were sitting under the apple tree, and the light edging through the leaves spotted us both. I remember there being apples – though that tree seldom produced anything until autumn, at least, and this might be another quirk of my memory, a mis-stitch in its embroidery. But never mind; there are apples here, round and glossy and incontrovertible, and I am inclined to let them stay.
We were talking about our children and what their names should be, and we gave ourselves the oddest feeling, imagining the same tree in not so many years’ time, belaboured by small boots, its apples carried off in grass-stained pullovers and skirts. Do you remember? We talked, too, about the places we should like to see: grand tours to Palmyra, Athens, Thebes. Yet these days I find myself fixing on smaller things: longing simply to sit with you at a coffee house, to eat chocolate cake together, to listen to Fauré, or to argue the merits of ‘Catherine’ over ‘Virginia’ – without a thought going beyond to little Catherine or Virginia’s arrival.
Darling, it will be over; perhaps not in thirty-eight minutes, but while we are still young, and able to go back to what we were meant to be doing before this inconvenient war came along. They say it will be over by Christmas, but they do talk a lot of rot, don’t they, and I never believed it. But spring, perhaps . . .? We here in England have been told a few things, none very comforting, about the Ottomans (whisper it) winning, and the possibility of evacuation. But I suppose you can’t write about that.
Dearest love, I wish you would answer me, if only to tell me if my letters bother you. I don’t know if my reminiscing consoles you or makes you sadder, if my talk of the future restores you or pains you. I don’t even know if my jokes are amusing. Darling, is it too painful to tell me how you are, to set it down? Write to me and tell me to shut up. God knows I’d welcome it. Anything but this silence.
I shall probably have to start this letter again, and write something more cheerful, so I may as well be honest. I can’t guess how you are: I have no idea what it must be like to be you. For the first time, I cannot even imagine it. Your life is a closed door, at which my outstretched hand fails, and drops back.
You used not to write much, I know, but I haven’t heard from you in months. What I know of you comes from Hugh’s letters to Harriet; I am told you are in good health, whatever that means. I should like to know what you are doing, what you see. One glimpse through the darkness between us, just a keyhole’s worth. You don’t have to tell me anything that wouldn’t make it past the censors. Just tell me what you are thinking, or something of what you feel. Tell me what you hope for. Just a word, darling, please.
About Morgan McCarthy
Morgan McCarthy was born in Berkshire in 1982. She is the author of four novels: The Other Half of Me, The Outline of Love, Strange Girls and Ordinary Women, and The House of Birds