Secrets, losses and reunions: A review of Kate Morton’s ‘The Lake House’

I finally finished reading this amazing book, The Lake House. I think Kate Morton is going to be my favourite author for the next few weeks. I came across this book when I was googling ‘What to read after The Thirteenth Tale’ and even though the list mentioned The House at Riverton first, I somehow felt like I’d enjoy The Lake House more. Mainly because it literally mentions ‘lake’ and ‘house’ implying the role these two play in the story. I have always had a thing for stories where the house plays an important role.

The story begins with young Alice burying something in the woods before taking the reader to the night when baby Theo went missing. In the next chapter, we are introduced to Sadie Sparrow, a young detective who stumbles upon the now abandoned Lonneath. Sadie is on a forced leave because she had leaked information to a journalist about a case she was involved in. The story behind the sad, lonely house in Cornwall somehow grabs her attention and she decides to find out what happened to baby Theo 70 years ago.

Alice Edavane is a successful writer now and when Sadie contacts her, she refuses to reply. Her assistant, Peter assumes that she just feels too tired (or arrogant) to speak to a stranger but the reader gets a glimpse of the guilt and fear that are holding her back. During a conversation with her sister, Deborah, it is revealed that Deborah has been keeping a secret all these years. She tells Alice that Clementine and she had discovered that their mother was having an affair with Benjamin Munro and that their father must have killed Theo because the two had been stupid enough to reveal it to him. Apparently he was suffering from shell shock and at times he used to lose control of himself. But Sadie is already aware of Anthony’s condition after her meeting with the former nanny’s niece.

Alice, who has been thinking all these years that her first manuscript which gave a detailed description of a baby being kidnapped must have helped Ben kidnap the child for money, decides to find out what really happened. She gets in touch with Sadie and gives her the keys to Lonneath. What they all discover there is predictable but beautiful nonetheless.

The story as such was not very unique but the way the author has narrated it is brilliant. The lake house is the protagonist of the story. The people in it are just secondary characters- each one with their own secret. Their version of what happened to baby Theo all those years ago. Sadie Sparrow’s storyline seemed a little unnecessary at first. I felt like too many pages are being wasted away in describing that abandoned child, the grandmother of the child (who kept insisting that her daughter won’t abandon her child) and the nearly perfect ex-husband. But at the end, it made sense. It was a parallel storyline that helped Sadie understand the unsolved case of the missing Edevane child and vice versa.

It had the kind of happy ending I like. A closure for the characters but with a lingering melancholy.

How the Skylark Saved my Life

PC: The Guardian

The first time I heard a skylark, I was barely three. The memory is hazy. I remember us packing our things and leaving a two room (I mean two rooms, not two bedrooms) house and arriving at what looked like a cottage in a forest. Sure, there were other houses but there were just too many trees- most of them taller than I could have imagined. They scared me. It was twilight and these giants were looking down on me- judging me for being insignificant. I was too sad about leaving my swing- a makeshift one my father had made by cutting off the legs of a tiny cane chair- behind. I was upset and scared.

My mother tried to cheer me up with fried potatoes and a glass of warm creamy milk. But they were as good as garden sprinklers against a raging forest fire. That’s what I compared my grief to- forest fires. Though, in hindsight, capturing an ocean in a teacup would have been a better metaphor considering how fire symbolizes passion and not grief. But back then, I didn’t know what an ocean was. So, as I was consumed by grief, I heard something. It sounded, at first, like a shriek and I was more alarmed than scared. But as the noise kept getting closer, the grief and confusion was replaced by fear.
“What creature is that.” I had started crying by then.
“It’s just a skylark.” my father explained.
“What kind of bird stays up at night?” It felt like a logical question to ask.
“It might rain.” my father told me. “If skylarks sing at night, it could mean rain…or a storm.”

That night, as I waited for a storm, I imagined the skylark to be a large black bird with spotted wings. Large spotted wings that could cut through stormy clouds. By the time I fell asleep, I wasn’t really afraid of skylarks. And over the years, I got used to them and with familiarity they became one of those things I took for granted. When I left that town, and a piece of my heart, and moved to the city, I did not even think about the skylarks.

But a couple of years ago, I began to miss them. ‘Miss’ is an understatement. I longed for them. I looked for their song in YouTube videos. I tried to remember them hard. Somewhere during all this research, I realized that it does not look anything like I had imagined. And when depression took me to a dark place, convincing me that it was the end, a tiny part of me was somehow convinced that if I could hear a skylark again, I could live on. Perhaps I thought so because I knew there were no skylarks in the busy city. I had no last leaf to hold on to. And then the miracle happened.

As we shifted to a villa at the outskirts of the city, I heard something that sounded like the soothing voice of an old friend. At first, I thought it was my imagination but it came again. Louder and clearer this time. It was the song of a skylark. I was relieved and overjoyed. I decided to pause the unpacking, sat near the window and listened. I could live!

Autumn Foliage, Winter Sunshine and Nostalgia

I have always been proud of being immune to nostalgia. I have lost friends, moved places, lost opportunities…but I have never looked back and wondered what life would have been like had I not lost them. The present has always been my happy place. Well, almost always. It was only recently that I discovered the tantalising melancholy that nostalgia can evoke. It is painful, yet so addictive.

When I was a child, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place that could give paradise a run for its money. A little town called Imphal in northeastern India. It had golden bugs and large leaves that trapped dew every morning. It had tall grass and people who were honest. It had that ‘Distant dim blue chains of mountains…every side’ that Emily Bronte describes in her poem. It had long winters and a colourful autumn before that. As a child, I would sit near the window, watching the leaves turn into a million shades of yellow and orange and red, and dream, like an ungrateful fiend, of a future in a city with skyscrapers.

I never fully appreciated the winters either. As a child, all I wanted was to flaunt my colourful clothes and get rid of the layers of wool and imitation fur. The frost on the window annoyed me then. As did the mist that lingered throughout the day sometimes. It has been 14 years since I left Imphal and now I long for winters. Even though where I live now, winter is just a whisper, I push through months of blazing sun just to see that thin veil of mist that vanishes with sunrise.

I long for things that I took for granted for the first 14 years of my life. I am nostalgic now. I try to find fragments of my childhood in old pictures. I grow ornamental grass in planters. I look at eucalyptus trees and wonder if they know about another eucalyptus tree that used to stand outside my bedroom window. I look up at the sky and recall the good old days when starlight could guide me on a new moon night. I collect pictures of autumn foliage on Pinterest and tell myself that the autumns I got to live through were far more beautiful.

Sometimes I wish I could just go back in time and give those things and moments their due appreciation. Sometimes I make plans to visit my childhood home and then I change my mind. What if it is no longer what it used to be? I don’t know when I became this person. I read somewhere that people who have a future to look forward to do not waste their time in being nostalgic. May be I have reached a point in life where there is nothing to look forward to.

Faceless Ghosts and Tragic Endings: My Thoughts on ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’

When I say I like watching horror, what I actually mean is I like watching anything with a gothic setting. It could just be a period drama or a thriller: if it has huge mansions and cloudy/foggy weather throughout, then I’m definitely watching it. So, when The Haunting of Bly Manor came out, I binge watched the entire season in a night.

It is so beautifully made. The characters and the setting complement each other so well it’s almost poetic. I will not get into the details of the plotline and the characters here. There are tons of reviews on the internet. I am here to talk about one particular sub plot that really touched me. The lady in the lake and the faceless ghosts. For me it was the most tragic part of the whole series. More tragic than the incomplete love story of Hannah and Owen. More tragic than the unfortunate demise of Peter and Rebecca. More tragic than the ending that Jamie and Dani didn’t deserve.

The faceless ghosts evoked grief more than fear because they represent the fear shared by us all. The fear of forgetting and being forgotten. And I think that’s the ultimate tragedy. Not willing to let go. When we do not let go of life, we live long enough to become mere husks of what we used to be. We forget faces, names and eventually we forget ourselves. And we do not let go of loved ones. When death takes them away, we immortalize them in memories. At first it’s anecdotes and stories about them. Soon, the memories are passed on to the next generation- people who haven’t met them- and the memories are enhanced with myths. Eventually, the faces and names fade away. Only the myths remain. I think that’s what ghosts are. Memories.

Of course, some ghosts stand taller than the others. They retain their faces and their anecdotes even after centuries. But then those are the ones who had done great things when they were alive. Great acts of kindness. Unimaginable acts of cruelty. The rest of us are doomed to become faceless ghosts like the lady in the lake. Our insignificant lives forgotten.

The Thirteenth Tale: The Tale of Change, Desperation and Ghosts

I discovered The Thirteenth Tale, a gem by Diane Setterfield , almost by accident. I have always loved gothic novels and the synopsis looked promising. Within the first few pages, when Vida Winter asks, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’, it almost felt like she was directly talking to me…and I couldn’t put the book down after that.

The story begins with the arrival of Vida Winter’s letter to Margaret Lea, who I can relate to at so many levels. She loves books, is an introvert, is obsessed with dead people (especially the Bronte sisters) and has a strained relationship with her mother. I can understand her apprehensions about accepting Vida Winter’s offer. Why would a popular author pick a nobody like Margaret to write her biography? She decides to give it a chance and once she does, there is no going back.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The moment Ms. Winter mentions twins, Margaret is intrigued enough to agree. Her own secret- that she had a twin sister who died as an infant- makes the story of the Angelfield children irresistible. At first it seems like a classic story of the good and the evil twin, but it is not. Because that’s not where the story begins. The story begins with Charlie and Isabelle. The inseparable twosome. But, of course, I didn’t pay attention, just like Margaret. I, just like the narrator, wanted to know how a strange and unruly child like Adeline become the sophisticated Vida Winter. Turns out she did not. Ms. Winter had narrated the ghost story she had promised at the beginning. The narrator and I were simply not paying attention.

Ms. Winter narrates the story in third person. She talks about the arrival of the twins, their early childhood, their mother, Isabelle’s descent into madness, the governess and the doctor who try to ‘fix’ the twins and the ghosts the governess encounters. After the sudden disappearance of the governess, things take a turn for the worse. Emmeline, the nicer twin, is now used to her new found independence. Adeline, the sort-of-evil twin is not very happy with it. The housekeeper and the gardener are relieved that Hester has left. I, like the narrator, naturally assumed that they were just two old people who did not like change and Hester, the governess, was change personified. Turns out they were relieved for different reasons. They are keeping a secret- a ghost, to be precise. And suddenly, just like that, Ms. Winter narrates the story in first person. The narrator assumes she’s an old woman who’s probably not able to think straight. I assumed it was probably because after Hester’s disappearance, Adeline probably began to understand the world around her. Turns out both of us were wrong. The narrator and I were not paying attention.

After several visits to the now ruined Angelfield, the narrator begins to understand that Aurelius, the friendly giant, is the son of one of the twins. When the police discovers the remains of a woman under the mansion, the narrator assumes it must be Hester. But her lawyer who has been investigating the mysterious governess from more than half a century ago confirms that Hester had indeed left and later married the doctor. Hester got the happy ending she deserved. But if the bones are not Hester’s, it can only mean one thing. The house was inhabited by the twins and another person. A ghost with flesh and bones but no name. The ghost the old housekeeper and gardener had been hiding and nurturing for years. Hester’s diary gives more clarification on this. She saw two girls in Angelfield when one of the twins was locked away. She assumed it was a ghost. It was easier to imagine a ghost than to imagine that there could be a third (half) sister.

The story gave closure to pretty much all the characters- Aurelius, Margaret, Vida… Somehow I cannot get over the fact that the identity of the twin saved by Vida from the fire would remain unknown. She wanted to save Emmeline but did she? I believe there are hints scattered around to suggest otherwise. The narrator gets to meet her twin sister’s ghost. It was somewhat annoying how obsessed she was with a sister she never met. But she got her closure, nevertheless. It ends with an anticlimax- the revelation of the much talked about ‘Thirteenth Tale’. It turns out to be a very ordinary story which gives us a glimpse of how young Vida Winter ended up at Angelfield.

The language is so beautiful it is almost poetry. It has all the elements of classic gothic fiction but they are assimilated so well in a contemporary setting and storyline. There allusions to Jane Eyre and parallels drawn with it throughout the story. This book is a must read for Bronte fans. It’s not your average ghost story but at the end you will realise, like the narrator, that Vida Winter had narrated her ghost story after all.

Resurgence

When I started this blog- six or seven- years ago, I didn’t have an agenda. I wanted this to be my safe space where I could express myself freely. I wrote about random things that came to my mind. I wrote poems about love and heartbreak. I voiced my opinions on society and politics. I reviewed books and films. Sometimes I wrote long essays on some weird dish, which probably no one cared about. I expected nothing out of it. I wrote because I loved writing.

And then adulthood happened. I started looking at my blog as an evidence of my imperfections. So, I tried being careful. I stopped posting poems or sharing my opinions. I wrote book reviews, sometimes too careful not to let my opinions of other things seep through. I rewrote reviews and deleted many of them because I didn’t want to be judged anymore. All my life I had been the person who didn’t care about what others thought. It was alright if everybody thought my handwriting was bad. It was alright to choose to study Literature when pretty much everyone I knew was choosing engineering. It was alright to be not pretty. I didn’t let others’ judgements define me.

But then I became that person. Not exactly a people pleaser but somebody who understood that sometimes what others think about me does matter. It could cost me my job. Or another opportunity. Sometimes it can severe a relationship that you have been trying so hard to keep safe for decades. Of course, I shouldn’t have let it break me when it happened. Do I really need someone who cannot love me for who I am? Do I really have to feel dejected over the loss of someone who took me and my decades of efforts for granted? Do they deserve my tears even if they are connected to me by blood? I know the answer to the questions. I always knew. No.

But it affected me in ways I can’t explain. For the past one year I have been doing everything in my power to prove to myself that I am good enough. That I am worthy of some of the love life has thrown my way. I wrote books. Changed jobs. Made plans for the future. Reread the classics. Watched documentaries about history and wars and space travel… I am in a good place right now. I am married to the person I love. I am the mother of wonderful cats and a naughty little human. I am financially secure. I know where I would be in the next ten years. I know what I would eat tomorrow and the day after. I know what I’m going to binge watch this weekend and the next. There are moments when I’m happy. But through all that, the darkness manages to creep in. Why? I keep asking when I can’t sleep at night. What did I do wrong? I ask that every night even though I know the answer.

Perhaps it’s time to stop being so careful. The only way I can let go is through writing. Over time, may be I’ll relearn to be a little less careful and a little more honest.

Emily Bronte, you are missed!

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As a reader, I have been acquainted with writers and poets from different centuries, each with their own style shaped by the era they lived in. But if someone were to ask me who my favourite author is, my answer would undoubtedly be Emily Bronte. It has been my answer for nearly 15 years now.

I read Wuthering Heights when I was in 9th Grade. I had read and admired Jane Eyre the previous year and the name ‘Bronte’ somehow made me want to read it. What followed cannot be described as a difficult reading experience, (that it definitely was for an average 13 year old), but as a journey into something vast and unforgiving like the moors in the book. It shook me, shocked me, surprised me and made me question everything I knew about love, loss, hatred and passion. It was far from the fairy tales that shaped my childhood. It put me face to face with the ugly side of human emotions and it was scary in a beautiful way just like the Gothic atmosphere that prevails throughout the novel.

It took me another decade to understand the finer aspects of the work- like the role of the unreliable narrator, the hint that Cathy and Heathcliff could have been half-siblings, the idea of their spirits haunting the moors- and once I did, I became obsessed with the creator. So little is known about her and that is what keeps my curiosity sustained. I have read the letters to and from the Bronte sisters, I have watched every documentary available and cannot help but feel outraged about the fact that she was taken away so soon. Had she lived longer, the world would have had the privilege to read more of her works. Now, we would never know what her second novel was about. We would never know what horrified Charlotte so much that she was compelled to destroy it. But considering how she made the act of digging up a grave to embrace a corpse sound romantic, one can only guess.

And today, on her birth anniversary, I console myself with the fact that she burned too bright for the world for a brief spell and has left warmth and chaos that are likely to remain centuries after her tragic death at the age of 30.

Disappearing Glass Wings and Invisible Glass Ceilings: Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle

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“I planned my death carefully, unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.”

These are the opening lines of Lady Oracle, an experience more than a book. While the same can be said about pretty much every work of Atwood, Lady Oracle would be my personal favourite because I happened to read it while going through a rather severe phase of existential crisis and the opening lines lit up something in me as I nodded in agreement.

The protagonist, Joan, is anything but the modern empowered woman the readers would mold themselves into. But that is exactly what makes her unique yet very relatable. She is a successful writer but incidentally, her most acclaimed work is an accident among a series of cheap writing she engages in for quick money. Ironically, her husband, the activist and visionary is hardly impressed by the success of her book which unintentionally stands for the very same ideals he does.

We get acquainted with young Joan and her difficult relationship with her mother through a series of flashbacks. But it is hardly an inspiring bildungsroman of the insecure caterpillar transforming into an enlightened butterfly. She is a simple woman who was once a child, a rebellious teenager who eventually grew up into someone who was wise enough to limit her desires to achievable material and emotional rewards. She values romantic love, but does not idolize it. She knows the importance of money, but does not ruthlessly pursue it.

Throughout the novel you expect a twist, a drastic transformation or a shocking revelation. Atwood leads the reader through this parody to the anticlimax which is the twist in a sense. That is the point where the reader understands the futility of fear, passion, desire, identity…everything that constitute the idea of existence and survival.
I wouldn’t say it is an easy or even an enjoyable reading experience as it requires some serious contemplation while reading to understand why the characters behave the way they do. There are parts which shake beliefs and ideals so violently that you are left questioning your choices and your stand in this otherwise shallow world. But it should definitely be in the list of a person who is passionate about literature since it is undeniably one of the best works of literature of contemporary times.

An Ode to Potential: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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I read somewhere long ago that our lives are like an intertwined mass of colourful stories and that it would be difficult to pull out one piece of yarn and say, “This is my story and mine alone”. Other stories define us. While some of these other stories are of loved ones and people we meet along the journey of life, some are just possibilities laid out before us by brilliant minds like Jojo Moyes. I read Me Before You in 2016. Sometime after watching the much acclaimed movie adaptation. And each time in the past two years I sat down to write a review/reflection of the heart-wrenching story, something has always held me back. It always felt too soon. The book was a rare nectar that I had to savour as slowly as possible. I wasn’t ready to accept that it was over. I have often wondered why the heart is associated with love and grief and feelings in general when it is the brain where these are felt. The day I finished reading the last page of Me Before You, I understood why. It felt like an invisible hand had mercilessly and violently pulled out my heart from my chest, leaving behind, not emptiness, but vague memories of Lou and Will and a beautiful story that could have been.

The characterization is so meticulously planned out that the readers can literally see how each character is necessary to the story, complementing each other throughout. Lou is not your typical romance heroine. She is not ravishingly beautiful or successful. She is not brainy or shy. She isn’t rich. She is hardly anything that would have caught the attention of Will Traynor had he not been bound to a wheelchair. The only quality Lou finds worth mentioning in her resume is that she is ‘chatty’, which, ironically, is what gets her the job. Will, on the other hand, is everything you would expect in a romance hero. Handsome, rich, adventurous, sometimes grumpy and sarcastic. It is a tragic accident that brings the two together.

Spoiler Alert

When Lou gets to know that Will is planning to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide, she wants nothing to do with the job. Not because she cares for him in particular, but because she doesn’t want to be a part of what she considers murder. In a futile attempt to change his mind, she plans vacations and various other things that would make him see the possibility of a life despite his disability and in the process, love blossoms between them as naturally as a drop of dew evaporates and becomes one with the air at sunrise. She opens up to him about her own tragedy which happened at the maze years ago. An accident just like his which has left her handicapped in some way. He simply tells her that she should not let that one thing define her. Ironically, he doesn’t change his decision. He makes it to Switzerland and Lou gets to be with him in his final moments. And it is only then that the reader understands that Will was trying to follow his own advice. Continuing to survive would have meant letting that one accident define his life and how he lived it. It also meant the lives of his loved ones would be defined by the same. He didn’t want that.

While the book has a heartbreaking end, it gives the readers moments of laughter and sometimes provokes thoughts. The other characters: Alicia, Treena, Lou’s parents and the many others have been crafted so beautifully that the story would not have been possible without their presence. More than a precious love story and an epic that narrates familial bonding and dignity of death, it is an ode to potential and a lesson in not letting ourselves be defined by tragedies and accidents.

All that Glitters is…Sassy

I was barely two years old when I saw glitter. I do not mean metaphorically. That would take me another ten years, a few betrayals and disillusionment. I mean the powdery stuff that sticks to your clothes, hair…practically anything and refuses to leave like an illegal migrant that the government cannot get rid of because…cheap labour. It was somebody’s birthday party and instead of confetti they decided to fill balloons with glitter. It was a bad idea. It fell on the cake and the numerous other delicacies. Mom was furious because she had a tough time making my already messy hair look non-glittery again. But the point is, I fell in love with it. The idea of glitter. It reminded me of fairy dust. Of starlight. Of forgotten dreams. Music. Basically all the nice stuff. I wanted to own glittery things. Clothes, shoes, everything…sadly back in those days they didn’t really sell that many glittery stuff.

When I was a teenager (the early 2000s), the amount of glittery stuff in the market was overwhelming. It was sort of in. I could see celebrities with glittery eye-shadow and shoes and sometimes a dazzlingly glittery dress. I could have owned cheaper versions of them if I wanted to. I did. Want to. But did I have the guts to say it out loud? Obviously, no. Glitter, by then, was beginning to get associated with ‘girly’ and I lived through a generation which treated girly as a very negative thing, almost synonymous with ‘shallow’, ‘dumb’, ‘materialistic’ and a lot of other things that were not cool. I, like any teenager, wanted to be cool. So, I pretended that I hated glitter. Each time I saw something glittery in a shop, my heart would ache to own it but I would mutter something about how it burns my eyes and turn away. Glitter pens were an exception, though. You see, they came with the perfect excuse. They look good on greeting cards and cover page of assignments.

Now, at the age of 27, I own everything that can possibly be glittery. I have a glittery phone case, a semi-glittery laptop sleeve, a bunch of glittery shoes, glittery eye-shadow in a range of colours that I actually wear to work…in broad daylight, I stopped judging myself as ‘shallow’ for liking glitter. What changed me? It’s a who. Magnus Bane. A couple of years ago, I started reading The Mortal Instruments. Guess who’s the sassiest character? Magnus Bane. He’s the high warlock of Brooklyn, has lived through centuries of wars and revolutions, has loved and lost, has fought demons and misguided shadowhunters, has survived, has been a mentor an guide…in short has been awesome. But guess what he has not been? Ashamed. He does not judge himself through society’s perspective. He is too wise for that. He is not ashamed of who he falls in love with. He is not ashamed of being vulnerable. He is not ashamed of liking glitter and overdoing it by literally covering himself and all his possessions in it. And this is the high warlock of Brooklyn we’re talking about. If he could embrace his true self, so could I. Ever since I stopped judging myself, the society did too. In fact, I realized that society actually does not care enough to judge anyone. Not unless one shows their insecurities. And thanks to Magnus, I have learnt to nip any insecurity in the bud.

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