Writing a book review isn’t an instantaneous thing for me. I don’t turn the last page of a book and immediately start bashing away at the keyboard. Instead the review forms over time in my head, sometimes whilst I am still reading, and then it takes me a little while to put it all in to words. For about half of Esther Freud’s ‘Sea House‘, the review which was forming was at best indifferent, at worst uncomplimentary. But then something changed and I was totally won over by its charm.
Lily has rented a Suffolk cottage so that she can work on her research of a famous architect, Klaus Lehmann. Reading through Lehmann’s letters, given to her by his son, Lily learns of Klaus’ passion for his wife, Elsa – a love which is possessive and jealous. The focus of the novel alternates between Lily and Max Meyer, a young artist who was commissioned many years ago to produce a painting of the house of Gertrude Jilks. Through Gertrude, Max is introduced to Elsa and the pair embark upon a passionate affair. Lily’s echoes Max’s; while she and her partner, Nick, are apart, she is drawn in to a relationship with Grae, her neighbour. Gradually, the past and present converge, as the links between the characters are revealed.
The book has a fairly complex plot – I couldn’t work out the connections between the main players: the lines joining them were only sketched lightly. After a while, I decided to abandon my frustrations and stop thinking so hard about the plot. The novel is full of insightful descriptions and prose, in which the sea and its shoreline communities play an important part. Unsurprisingly, houses also feature heavily, anchoring people in time and place.
It was at the point that I stopped concentrating so hard that I began to enjoy this book more. It must have been all those descriptions of the sea. I just let it wash over me.