RogerBW's Blog

The Ivy Tree, Mary Stewart 29 June 2016

1961; mystery/thriller or romantic suspense. Mary Grey has no particular prospects, but she's a dead ringer for Annabel Winslow, the heir to the small farm of Whitescar, who's been missing for eight years. Con Winslow, who's been running the place as Annabel's grandfather gradually declines, sees a chance to pull a Brat Farrar, produce the "missing heir", and get the place whether or not it's willed to him. But Mary has her own plans.

This is a book based on the narrator causing a false understanding in the reader, and it feels at times like a cheat: if you have a suspicion of what might be going on (and a regular reader of mystery stories should not find this a major challenge), there are clear omissions to be found in Mary's first-person narrative. Just as Agatha Christie had earlier written "I did what few things had to be done" to cover up a murder by her narrator, Stewart doesn't explicitly deceive but does carefully misdirect. The problem is, though, Christie's character was writing a document meant, in a diegetic sense, to become public, to be read by people (still within the world of the story) who might be swayed by it; in The Ivy Tree there's nobody in the world to whom Mary is later going to be recounting the story in this way, and therefore whom she's trying to deceive. This angle might have worked better if it had been framed as letters or a diary that she'd feared might be read by the ungodly; it's deception for the sake of it. And this is a romance too, so Mary's true emotional state is important. Certainly, if one rereads the book while remembering the solution to the puzzle, some passages come across as unreasonably twisted, and the whole thing works less well than it might on a subsequent reading. Mary's real motivation for her actions is not entirely solid, and the romantic hero is barely characterised except that he has Suffered.

The setting isn't as thoroughly used as in other books: apart from some references to Hadrian's wall, it could be happening pretty much anywhere in rural England. Compared with Madam, Will You Talk's use of Marseilles, or especially My Brother Michael's use of Delphi, it all comes over as a bit free-floating. Even the geography seems fluid at times, and some day I may see if it's possible to draw a map that's consistent with all the different fragments of description that we get here.

On the other hand there is some distinctly good stuff in the book as well. The interaction between Mary, Con, and Con's adoring half-sister Lisa is very well-drawn; Annabel's much-younger sister Julie and the solid man to whom she may be getting married provide both comic relief and emotional tension; and there are some excellent scenes of horrible dinner parties, a very fat cat, and a desperate ride through the dark.

The writing is still lovely, and it's just that one conceit that may be troublesome; unfortunately the book is entirely built round it. Still well worth reading, though.

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See also:
Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey

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