Susan Howatch's Cashelmara is one rollercoaster of a ride! One of the blurbs on the book calls it "another blockbuster", and gauging the heftiness of Howatch's books (this one weighs in at just over 700 pages) I think I know what that means. It's the sort of story that you literally lose yourself in. Howatch, and other authors who write (wrote?) 'blockbusters' (most notably in the 1970s and 80s it seems) know just how much fishing line to dangle in front of the reader before reeling it all back in. You know how it goes--pages filled with family dramas, passion, hatred, and in the case of Cashelmara--revenge! There are loads of little cliffhangers throughout the story to keep the reader turning pages and sucking them into the story.
Not too long ago a coworker asked me what I was reading and I pulled out my copy of Cashelmara. A quick glance at the description and she recalled seeing the book, different edition of course, on her mother's bookshelves when she was young. I hadn't realized it had been published so long ago, 1974 to be precise, but then historical fiction doesn't really become too dated easily. It is a retelling of the life and reign of Edward II, but if you (like me) are unfamiliar with that particular era in history, you needn't worry about feeling you are missing out. It stands quite soundly on its own.
Cashelmara is the family seat of a titled English family in Ireland. The estate and surrounding lands was bequeathed by Queen Elizabeth to the de Salis family and is entailed in such a way that it cannot be sold off easily and passes from male heir to male heir along down the line. This isn't just a garden variety family drama however, it's a family saga, chronicling the dreams, aspirations, weaknesses and shortcomings of three generations of the de Salis family.
Howatch recasts the story from 14th century England and Wales to the mid-Victorian period and a family home in England known as Woodhammer Hall and Cashelmara in Ireland. And like Edward's reign which was marked by petty squabbling, mismanagement and political and military defeats, an all around disastrous reign, Howatch tells the story of the rise and fall of fortunes of the de Salis family. At the beginning Lord de Salis is wealthy, well regarded and an excellent land manager to the estate in Ireland. The country, the house and the people are loved by de Salis, and he is held in high esteem by his tenants.
In not too many years, however, and with neglect the once powerful de Salis family takes a tumble. It's not just calamitous events such as the Great Famine and the rise of Irish Nationalism that plague the de Salis family but general incompetence in the managing of estate affairs. Everything that the elder Lord de Salis worked for and built during his lifetime is destroyed by his son in a very few years.
The novel is broken into six sections, each with its own narrator. They are told in first person and with titles such as "Duty", "Fidelity", "Loyalty", "Passion","Ambition" and "Revenge" it's not hard imagining the narrative arc of the story. Each successive Lord de Salis tells his story, two of the wives tell their version of events and most interesting is an outsider of sorts--one of the tenants who rises to power. This is not a fun-filled romp of a story. Quite the opposite, it is often dark in tone with its concentration on the foibles of the family members. Told in first person, Howatch gives insight into their motivations, actions and behaviors. These are flawed characters whose actions will have consequences. It's easy to dislike many of them, and surely that is part of the attraction. There are simply some characters you love to hate, though you might question your reactions and need to reassess those reactions as the story unfolds.
Despite the sometimes heavy tone, Cashelmara is an entertaining read in its way. Having such varied narrators makes for interesting going, though it's perhaps a little uneven in the starts and stops. A small quibble however. I've already picked up a few of Howatch's other 'blockbusters' and may pull one out closer to summer when a nice idle sunny afternoon sitting on the porch reading is in the offing.