Orion | 2018 (26 July) | 425p | Review copy | Buy the book
The House of Shadows is the final novel in Kate Williams’ De Witt trilogy, which follows the fortunes of a half-German and half-English family during the early years of the 20th century, through war, loss, love and scandal. As with most trilogies, you really wouldn’t want to start at the end so do read The Storms of War and The Edge of the Fall first. The review below assumes you’ve done that.
It is January 1929 and Celia De Witt and her brother Arthur have left their family country home in England and arrived in New York, a city of riches where fortunes are there for the taking. Celia has plans that could help save her family’s business – a range of convenience foods for a new class of person: independent, busy women. But Celia has more than business on her mind. She has learned that the son she thought was dead is actually alive and well in New York and the man she once loved is also in the city. Finally, Celia has the chance to put things right but there is so much at risk. So much that can go wrong. And then the Wall Street Crash happens.
I do love a good saga, particularly one set during these Downton Abbey years, and The Storms of War was a big favourite of mine in 2014. The Edge of the Fall, in my opinion, suffered because it was missing the great event that dominated the first novel, the First World War. Of course, it’s also missing here but the calamitous repercussions of that war continue to overshadow events in The House of Shadows, especially as the years pass towards World War II. The half-German heritage of the De Witts continues to mar their fortunes while also giving them a fascinating heritage. The main event of this third novel is the Wall Street Crash, which is covered really well here, but Celia is now making her way in the world, making her own choices for her future, and so she remains relatively unaffected by events. But others in her family are not so fortunate.
I have always found Celia a difficult character to warm to. Her treatment of the men who love her makes me grimace while her support for Arthur, one of the most loathsome people I can think of in fiction, is irritating, to say the least. Celia has a great deal of growing up to do but, as she tries to build bridges with her young son, it’s not clear that she’s learned her lessons. The novel’s new generation of children, Lily and Michael, are just as bad as the last one. Lily is given interludes through the novel but these can be quickly passed over.
I really enjoyed the sections set in New York City, particularly the scenes in which we meet the city’s homeless children who live in the streets and move across the city’s roofs. Celia makes a genuine connection with one of them and this relationship is my favourite of the novel. The aftermath of the Crash is also dealt with well. This is such an interesting period of history. The second half of the novel moves through the 1930s, years that present new difficulties and challenges for the De Witt family. Knowing that another war is on the way heightens the tension.
Kate Williams is a fine historian and the novel is full of historical details as we move from America to a Europe preparing for war. I love the sweep of it, the real sense that we’re witnessing history. There’s a dominating romance element to The House of Shadows which isn’t really for me (my fault and not the book’s), but Kate Williams writes delightful prose. It dances along, pausing briefly throughout to provide valued historical insight.