Thursday, April 24, 2008

China Court by Rumer Godden

It’s been many years since I’ve read anything by Rumer Godden so I was happy to be re-introduced to her through Julie’s podcast at Forgotten Classics. China Court is proof that dysfunctional families are nothing new. It chronicles the lives of several generations of a family that lived in England at the family home called China Court. The title has nothing to do with royalty and is connected to the nearby china clay works that were the source of the family’s fortune. (Please be aware that I may have misspelled or misquoted in a few places because I was listening to this book and could not read the correct spellings.)

Godden is a writer who succeeds in weaving faith into her stories without writing moralistic hogwash. An important element in the narrative is The Book of Hours, a Catholic prayer book that is read by Mrs. Quinn, the matriarch of the story. Not only does it fortify her spirit as her life draws to a close, but it brings about an amazing turn of events (as you will discover if you read the book! I don’t want to spoil it for you.)

The story opens with the death of Mrs. Quinn. This is followed, of course, by the gathering of the family to hear the reading of the will. But the rest of the book is totally unpredictable. It is not told in a sequential timeline. Instead there is a hopping back and forth between generations, usually through the reflections of Mrs. Quinn. Once in a while it is difficult to remember who is who (apparently the hard copy of the book has a family tree page in the back to clear up confusion). There are satisfying twists. There are scandals. There is much sadness, but as Mrs. Quinn says, “All our happiness is shot through with unhappiness and all of our unhappiness is shot through with happiness.” There are no unalloyed experiences in this life.
Tracy and Peter are key characters in the book. They are the only ones “old-fashioned” enough to want to preserve the decaying family home and its connected run-down farm. The rest of the family just wants the will read, the buildings sold, and the money divided. When the relatives reprimand Tracy for wanting to keep the home they tell her it will take too much time, money and work. “You won’t have a moment to yourself,” the say. “A moment to do what?” responds Tracy. To her keeping the home would not be a negation of herself but exactly the opposite. Godden wrote: “To keep” had become for Tracy the most important word in the English language. And it isn’t only “possessive” she had defended to herself... It means to “watch over, take care of, maintain”.
This is a lovely book about investing your life in things that matter rather than jumping from experience to new experience. Some take the risk of being out-of-date by giving of themselves to the land, their homes, or their families. The others are “free” but empty.


Sherry said...

I think I'll have to add this one to my TBR list, which grows longer every day. If anyone asked me, "A moment for what?" I'd answer without thinking, "To read!"

g.martha said...

Three cheers for China Court, by Rumor Godden--absolutely right up there with Pride and Predjudice for me! I reread both every several years, and the books only get better because of the familiarity. I find myself living in China Court, living both Mrs. Quinn's life (mostly), but also the fanatical book people in this story--no spoilers. I hear conversations or at least one-liners from this tale in appropriate places in my own life! Rumor Godden is a wonder. Also read her Episode of Sparrows and the trilogy she wrote as her autobiography!!

vera said...

I too have been re-reading Rummer Godden's books. When I was in my teens, I got the "The Black Narcissus" and "The Greengage Summer" in a musty second-hand bookstore in the Philippines. I've never forgotten those books. Now, 20 years later, I read those books again, and am once more amazed at R. Godden's mastery of the written word - how she evokes time and place, and emotions! I've been on a Rumer Godden reading mania lately, snatching time from work and childcare to read her books. I've recently read "Kingfishers Catch Fire", "Battle at Villa Fiorita", "Breakfast with the Nikolides", "Coromandel Sea Change", "The Peacock Spring", and I am about to read "The China Court", and after that, "The Dark Horse." I have been searching the internet for reviews of her books, and I am so glad I found your blog! We are kindred spirits, I think.

Anonymous said...

Janet W: China Court is one of my favourite books ... but it has been awhile since I've read it and now I can't find it! So I'm going to get another copy -- I so enjoyed your review. Thank you.

Sara said...

My book club is reading "China Court". I have written your last paragraph in my journal and I will be quoting you tonight. Glad to know about your blog.

Unknown said...

I had never heard of the book but now want to get my hands on to see where I can source it.

Thanks for the recommendation.