The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

Reviewed by Annabel

Here they come. Here they are. Les anglais, the English, les rosbifs.

After a rather attention-grabbling opening, in which the ageing Sir Anthony Valentine writes some extremely purple prose about mountains and valleys in his diaries, Henderson’s second novel settles down to tell the story of decades of summer visitors to Valentine’s chalet named Arete, (yes, it’s deliberately missing its circumflex), high in the French Alps.

It begins in 1914 as Mathilde, a teenaged girl from the valley, is about to start work there, and goes forward from that point in that timeline. Then, running parallel, is the second timeline of 1976, when George, Valentine’s great-great-grandson, arrives for a visit.

Each summer, when the Valentines and their entourage of house-guests arrive at their chalet, the locals rub their hands with glee – not that they want to fleece them exactly, but it does mean more money for everyone.

In the village, Mathilde is known as one of the ‘uglies’ – and she is told she is ‘uglier than most,’ and so particularly suited to escape Sir Anthony’s alleged roving eye. She doesn’t care – she’s eager to know what goes on at Arete. She knows that Sir Anthony’s daughter Margaret has not returned to Arete for years, and wonders what happened.

Valentine women are more than at the core of my story – they’re its beating bloody anglais heart – but I didn’t know that then. Valentine women and Valentine men: good things as well as bad have come of my connection with them. But back then, the simple truth was, I had a job for the summer. I couldn’t wait.

Mathilde is the one constant (apart from the chalet itself) throughout the novel, and she has to put up with an awful lot, particularly from the female side of the Valentine family. For a start, when Sir Anthony’s daughter Beatrice finds out that Mathilde has been to school, she says:

‘An educated cretin. What an odd thing. But it’s your domestic skills that matter here.’

Beatrice’s young daughter Daisy adopts Mathilde as her follower, dragging her all over the place when time allows, and never missing an opportunity to undermine Mathilde. Theirs is a relationship that continues in like vein for many years as spoilt Daisy becomes more and more unmanageable as she grows up.

There are often hordes of young people staying at Arete, and to keep them occupied Sir A invented the Alpine Club which they all sign up to, meaning that they have to do ‘Paideia’. This is derived from an Ancient Greek word for cultural education of a body of people. Sir A’s version is like scouting – physical challenges involving hiking, climbing and swimming. Even after Sir A’s demise, the Arete traditions keep on – even into the 1970s. Needless to say, the young folk work hard, but they also play harder!

Working at Arete through five generations, Mathilde knows nearly everything that happened each summer, but there are still some secrets involving Margaret that elude her that you sense will matter to them all. There is a nice tension built up running between the two timelines that keeps you reading, despite the occasional languor in the text as the younger visitors go on their merry japes – again.

Mathilde is a superb character, educated, yet a much-loved, hard-working woman, still driven in her old age to unearth the one secret she needs to know. Mathilde may be ‘ugly’ but her mind isn’t and although her eventual husband and father of her children wants her for her hard work, either side of him are men who love her for her intelligence and understanding: Benôit, who dies in the Great War, and latterly Costa, an instrument repairer and nightclub owner. Mathilde and Costa are so obviously meant to be together that you want to knock some sense into them each time obstacles get in the way.

Emma Henderson’s debut novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, a touching love story set in a mental institution, was a big success – The Valentine House couldn’t be more different with its generational sweep and Alpine setting. Second novels can often be difficult, but in The Valentine House, Henderson is writing about an area she knows well – having lived in the Haute-Savoie for some years. In the late 60s and early 70s, I went on many Alpine summer holidays to the mountains above Montreux, and visited Chamonix and Mont Blanc, so there was a slight nostalgia element for me which was backed up by the authentic feel of the text. This is a summery and very enjoyable read.

Read a Q&A with Emma Henderson about The Valentine House here.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and feels the lure of the clean mountain air.

Emma Henderson, The Valentine House, (Sceptre, 2017). 978-1444704020, 352 pp., hardback.

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