The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney

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Reviewed by Victoria

The Sacred Combe

This is the story of a regeneration, though one of the strangest and yet most serene that I have ever read. Samuel Browne is a grieving man; his wife of three years, Sarah, has walked out on him with no warning, leaving the most inadequate of notes, and the life he now leads in their London flat, working at a job in banking, is flat and empty for him. With the aim of some sort of self-distraction, he buys a secondhand copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, and sets himself the task of working through all twelve volumes. Unusual salvation comes in the form of a note slipped into the seventh volume, requesting a ‘diligent volunteer to carry out two months’ painstaking archival work for private library’. At twenty-five, with his life meaningless to him, Samuel Browne throws in everything he knows and takes the job.

He travels to a place free from real geographical markers – which adds to its mystical allure – but deep in the winter-bound countryside. Combe Hall is ancient, beautiful, cold and full of decaying grandeur. It’s also full of eighteen thousand volumes of books in a library that is pure wish-fulfillment. The elderly owner, Arnold Comberbache, entrusts Samuel with searching every single book carefully and diligently on the hunt for a lost family letter. It was hidden somewhere in the library by his morally uptight great-uncle, hoping to eliminate traces of scandal from the old family history. Now it is a much-desired part of the family archive, and a missing piece of a complex historical puzzle.

On the way to Combe Hall, the first morning of his time there, Samuel spots a robin.

After a few steps I stopped at the sudden, weird sound of a robin, singing from a bony elbow of hawthorn not ten feet away. He fixed his bright, black eye just over my shoulder and sang with astonishing quietness – a thin, intimate whisper of beauty that only he and I could hear. The vibrations stirred the tiny feathers of his throat, whose colour, a soft, cinnamon orange, made me think of the noblest of ancient tapestries, and so seemed to lend that tiny, fragile, short-lived creature an air of grandeur and wisdom.

The sighting – and this passage – could stand as a symbol for all that will unfold in the following narrative. This is a novel of description, long, loving time spent detailing the gardens in which the house stands, the wider landscape, the contents of the library, the weather as it shifts slowly and gradually from winter to spring, and the people who belong to the house. The description is, without exception, quite beautiful. But it is also a novel of unusual quietness, featuring careful and restrained relationships, an old family scandal that is accepted and revered before it is even known, and a transformation of its narrator that is barely spoken about, just quietly, gently recorded in the way his perceptions alter over time. The narrative voice is formal and polite, like that of a nineteenth century scholar, and there is a timelessness to the novel that feels a little odd against its gradual piecing together of a family history, but adds to a general air of grandeur and wisdom.

So, essentially, not a lot happens. Samuel works in the library every day, searching for the lost letter, and over time guests arrive at Combe Hall. Rose, the talented teenager who is Arnold Comberbache’s ward; Juliet, the piano-playing daughter-in-law and her brother, the wild-haired mountaineer Corvin. Gradually, Samuel will be told the tragic story of Rose’s parents and Arnold’s son. And he will trace the family back in time, too, to the story of Hartley and his wife, Sarah, and the original scandal to which the letter gives voice.

All this time, Samuel will be exploring and coming to love the area in which Combe Hall is situated. He will come to experience its gardens and the mysterious temple situated in the hillside above. Vivian Gornick defined narrative as the combination of a story and a situation, but in this book, the situation becomes the story: the geographical situation of the house and the interrelational situation of the family. Samuel will come to know them both in an unhurried narrative of gentle unfolding, in which all nooks and crannies will be explored.

As you may have gathered, this is an unusual sort of book, but a very meditative one: gentle, serene, soothing. Its power lies in the potency and beauty of its descriptions which cast a hypnotic spell. There were times when I wondered whether knowing more about Romanticism would have unlocked depths of the narrative to me, and the twist at the end left me wondering what to think – well, I wondered if I were overthinking or underthinking the conclusion. But these are quibbles set against an uncommon literary experience. Thomas Maloney has a unique voice for the 21st century; it will be very intriguing to see what he writes next.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Thomas Maloney, The Sacred Combe (Scribe, 2016). 978-1925228298, 304 pp., hardback.

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