My newest guest reviewer is author Paul G. Bens, Jr. He is the author of:
Mahape a ale Wala‘au (Erotic Novellete published by Torquere)
Kelland (coming in 2009 from Casperian Books)
Title: The Tea House
Author: Paul Elwork (www.paulelwork.com)
Genre: Literary Fiction, historical, coming of age
URL: Casperian Books
Price: US$13.50 (currently on sale for $10.00)
Other Information/warnings: None
Summary (from the publisher): Emily Stewart has a secret. So does her brother, Michael.
Thirteen years old, precocious and privileged, the Stewart twins are just beginning to learn the power of secrets. But what starts as a game among their small circle of friends soon grows out of control; Emily and Michael’s secret spills into the adult world, where secrets can be deadly.
The Tea House is a richly evocative tale of coming of age in early 20th century America. With period detail and deep compassion, Paul Elwork delivers a suspenseful novel that delves into the intricate truths lying at the very heart of families.
My Review: Like the titular edifice, The Tea House is a bit of a mystery, a solid debut by Paul Elwork which, in some respects, defies description or categorization. It is a novel that goes down easily, with evocative prose and an unparalleled sense of time and place, but it is also a story that haunts your memory long after you’ve finished it, even though–and perhaps because–you are only given a quick glance inside, a moment in time to find all the lives and secrets hovering in its darkened corners.
At once profoundly simple and deceptively complex, The Tea House focuses on that tenuous period of time when the world had lost its innocence in the War to End All Wars, but had yet to realize the true horrors that lay ahead in WWII. It is the summer of 1925, and at Ravenwood, a family estate on the banks of the Delaware River, 13 year-old twins Emily and Michael Ward find themselves fatherless, a bit bored with their lives and perched on the edge of an encroaching adulthood that seems far too close, yet so very far away. Emily discovers that she has a unique talent–she is able to manipulate the bones in her ankle to make a popping sound, one seemingly without origin. One night she uses her talent to frighten her brother by pretending to be a ghost, the knocking a form of communication from one world to the next. The brooding, almost morose, Michael finds excitement in his sister’s talent, a grand adventure, and very quickly he hatches a plan to convince some neighborhood friends that his sister can commune with the dead. In particular, says Michael, Emily has a special connection with Regina Ward, one of their ancestors, a young woman who died tragically on the banks of the river and whose photograph has haunted Emily.
It is a game in which Emily gladly participates, but as news of her “spirit knocking” spreads to adults, and the twins begin to enjoy their new found (albeit limited) fame, their summer magic threatens to unravel the secrets and ghosts of their own family and the families of others whose lives have been decimated by the war.
Like the better films of Robert Altman and the more accessible works of Anton Chekhov, The Tea House is at its core a deeply rich character study, not only of people, but of a fading innocence, a decaying lifestyle and the transitory unease of impending adulthood. The plot is simple and straightforward and the beauty of this story is that it can be enjoyed on both levels: as the simple, misguided summer adventure of two young children, or as the broader character study.
Although the novel is rife with imagery and metaphor, author Elwork never once hammers us over the head with it. Like the novel as a whole, it is all done subtly, with a keen eye for detail and a steady, easy prose. From the beginning, Elwork captures the boredom of childhood, the loss of the family patriarch, and the silence that threatens to swallow up the adults in the Ward family and, really, the entire world. The result is a relaxed, yet brooding prose that never hurries and always carries with it a sense of danger, of impending doom. There are no bumps or scares here, but the novel is most definitely a story of ghosts, of the loss of which no one will speak. In that respect, the novel works on another level, as a suspense piece in the best Hitchcockian tradition.
Told primarily from the point of view of Emily, we are taken on a journey as the young girl, in a desire to create more ghosts for their harmless charade, becomes fascinated with the story of her own family and begins to discover its history, the relationship of her parents and the things she has never known or even wanted to know before now. We see Emily discovering her roots and what the loss of her father has meant to each and every member of the family. It is then that the Tea House becomes–for me at least–the elephant in the room, that thing that hovers about each and everyone in the world. It is there, on the grounds of Ravenwood, but rarely does anyone go inside and no one, save the children, speak of it, enjoy it. Like all the men lost in the war (the lack of men in this world becomes almost a character in itself), the Tea House is never really forgotten by the adults, but neither is it spoken of. And, as we discover, Emily and Michael’s family is not the only one with secrets and regrets and deafening silence around them.
If I had to find any flaws, for me it is that, at times, Emily and Michael’s dialog felt more adult than their chronological age, but that could be the result of the accurate portrayal of that age’s formality of speaking. And there are one or two times when the pace could have been quickened ever so slightly. But these are minor, minor quibbles, almost hardly worth mentioning.
In the end, this piece works on so many levels it is hard to choose my favorite aspects. The character are well-drawn without being overwrought and even those lost to the war blossom into full, rich characters (some worthy of their own novels) as Emily learns more about them, about the lives she never knew they led, about their lost childhoods. The prose ventures into truly beautiful areas without every turning purple, and the tone perfectly captures a time and a place that can never be regained. It is truly a coming-of-age story in the very best sense of the phrase; yet it manages to be very much more. A very impressive character study that makes me want to see what other stories Elwork has in him.