Continuing this review of Mary Stewart’s ‘romance-suspense’ novels (part one here), the next book I read was another set in Europe.
Airs Above the Ground (1965) is set in Austria, and follows Vanessa and her friend’s young son, Timothy, as they travel to Vienna. Ostensibly, Vanessa is travelling to accompany Timothy who’s visiting his estranged father, who now is living in Vienna – though he later reveals to Vanessa that he really wants to see the famous Lippizaner horses of the Spanish Riding School, and possibly to get a job there. However, having seen footage of her husband, Lewis, on a cinema newsreel about a fire in a travelling circus, when he’s told her that his company have sent him to Stockholm (and sent letters to maintain the deception), Vanessa wants to find out what her husband is doing in Austria at all. After leaving Vienna, Timothy and Vanessa come across the circus and a mystery, as they travel from Vienna to Zechstein (on the frontier with Czechoslovakia, which was, at that time, of course, firmly behind the Iron Curtain).
The ‘airs above the ground’ of the title is a reference to the movements of the horses of the Spanish Riding School, and there’s quite a bit of interesting detail of how the horses are trained and cared for, and why. Vanessa, Timothy, Lewis and the circus folk are entertaining characters, and there’s quite a bit of adventure, excitement, car chases and fairy-tale castles. I think Vanessa’s a little slow on the uptake when it comes to realising what Lewis is up to and why, but their relationship is convincing and even rather amusing: there’s a lovely bit when he turns up incognito at night in Vanessa’s bedroom, for example.
Moving on now to the ‘Near East’, The Gabriel Hounds (1967) is Stewart’s modern-day retelling of the story of Lady Hester Stanhope (who led an autocratic life in the nineteenth century in the High Lebanon) in the person of Christabel and Charles Mansel’s great-aunt Harriet. Christabel is on a tour of the area, and unexpectedly meets her cousin, Charles, in Damascus. Although Charles puts the idea into her head, it’s Christabel who first gains entrance to Dar Ibrahim, the former palace not far from Beirut which is now the home of ‘Lady Harriet’ – but it’s fairly obvious to Christabel and to the reader that not everything is right there. Christabel is hampered by not knowing as much of her elderly relative as her cousin does, and he fails to tell her something very important which leads to her finding out what is going on there rather later than is comfortable.
The relationship between the two of them is interesting and realistic, though Christabel (who narrates the story) is not entirely honest with the reader about her feelings for her cousin until near the end – when it becomes obvious. She’s actually an engaging heroine, despite her – self-confessed – arrogance, since she’s intelligent and resourceful, has believable flaws, but refuses to be cowed in the face of danger. The scene-setting is splendidly realised, as usual, and the motivations of the people at Dar Ibrahim are left nicely ambiguous. The locals are definitely secondary characters, but they’re individual and often well-drawn* (though I thought Halide something of a stereotype) if not always sympathetic – the main villains are, of course, English.
Now back in Britain, The Ivy Tree (1961) is set in Northumberland, on Hadrian’s Wall territory. Mary Grey has come from Canada to seek her fortune in the Old World, until she’s mistaken for the long-missing Annabel Winslow by Annabel’s cousin, Connor, and recruited into his scheme to impersonate the long-lost heir – their bargain being that if she inherits the farm, Whitescar, on her grandfather’s death, that she immediately hand this over to Con, who desperately wants the place for himself. Of course, nothing is as straightforward as it appears, and Mary has to deal also with ‘cousin’ Julie, Julie’s boyfriend, Donald Seton, an archaeologist, and the sudden revelation by Julie that Annabel and Adam Forrest (owner of nearby Forrest Hall and now widowed) were once lovers. Mary narrates the story in the first person, as is Stewart’s wont, and it’s very cleverly written, but also rather sad and full of longing: I particularly liked Mary’s reaction to seeing Adam’s hands for the first time, burnt and damaged in the fire which ruined the Hall.
Stewart describes the north-country with love and precision – she also is evocative over the garden planted by Annabel long ago, and the ruins of Forrest Hall, not far away – and she makes Connor and his half-sister Lisa entirely believable and even a little frightening in their single-mindedness – Con with his obsession over the farm, and Lisa in her obsessive maternal love for Con. I liked this one particularly, partly because the characters were so compelling (and I do like that impostor returns as the long-lost heir kind of plot, though Stewart subverts it a little), but also because of the setting, in an area of England that is still fairly remote and little-known, and an almost tangible feel of nostalgia.
Part three of this review will be posted soon!
*For the opposite point of view, see Niranjana Iyer’s review of The Gabriel Hounds (amongst others of Stewart’s novels) where she does not have this sense of the local characters at all.