Read beyond the initial awkwardness of childhood friends Kate and Oliver’s tenuous romance and you’re rewarded with a book so richly engaging, you’ll want to savour it sparingly.
Kate has been left a house in leafy Oxford by a reclusive old aunt. Oliver has quit his job in the city and, with time on his hands, offers to oversee the renovation of what he remembers from a boyhood glimpse of exotic wallpaper as ‘the house of birds’.
Bedding down on an old mattress in the living room, while Kate is in New York for work, he discovers a folded up handwritten diary stuffed within the carefully cut out pages of an old history book.
And so we meet Sophia, the narrator of this story within a story, who once lived in the house. She gradually relates her life – being barred from the Bodleian Library without a man to introduce her, meeting a young academic called Christopher, who gives her access to the vast cavern of books and in whom she finds comfort (and escape) from her war-scarred husband George.
As Oliver discovers more of Sophia’s writing, he’s drawn into an ancient dispute over the house, between Kate’s family and the intimidating Calverts – and begins to rediscover himself in the dusty shell of the past.
Not without some contrivances of plot, but when McCarthy is writing as Sophia, there’s nothing you’d rather be reading.