Book Review: The Shifting Fog

The Shifting Fog is the story of the Hartfords, but it is also the story of Grace, and of a time and a place and a world that no longer exist. It is beautifully done.

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What is the etiquette around ignoring your new husband on your honeymoon? This was the dilemma I faced as I browsed the books at the airport before we set off for our honeymoon in New Zealand. You see, I had just discovered Kate Morton and there, in the airport newsagent sat one of her beautifully written, thick and intriguing novels.
The Shifting Fog is Kate Morton’s first Novel. Set in two eras, it tells the story of the beautiful and tragic Hartford sisters, told through the eyes of their maid Grace.
Grace is fourteen when she starts in service at the grand Riverton Manor, home to Lord Ashbury and the Hartford family. It is June, 1914 and the grandchildren are all home for the summer holidays, and Grace, taking us along with her, quickly falls under the spell of the beauty, glamour and camaraderie of the Hartford children.
The First World War erupts and leaves the family shattered, and as they try to pull themselves back together in the aftermath, and the decade slips away quietly, we watch the tangled lives of the Hartford sisters change direction with the new, post war headiness of the twenties.
We are told about the tragedy at the heart of the story from the start. Grace thinks on it constantly as she reminisces and pulls us through time with her, thinks on it guiltily. She is involved somehow, it is her secret, and at age 98, with time running out, she finally decides to tell someone. Even though we have been forewarned, from the very first pages, such is the power of Morton’s storytelling that when the time comes for the tragedy to occur, so swept up are we in the lives of the sisters, we are almost certain it won’t.
It does. Of course it does, we knew it would and we are left shocked and saddened and a little bit impressed by the way it all unfolds.
Kate Morton is my favourite contemporary author. She has an incredible skill in taking the reader to an era as though she has lived it. She creates characters you desperately care about and situations that are as romantic as they are hopeless. The Shifting Fog is the story of the Hartfords, but it is also the story of Grace, and of a time and a place and a world that no longer exist. It is beautifully done.
Back at the airport, all set for my honeymoon, I looked longingly at the sultry 1920s beauty on the cover of the The Shifting Fog, the faded lakeside mansion in the background promising all the opulence and mystery I’d come to love from Morton’s work. I temporised, and then I compromised. I bought the book, and a different book for my new husband, handing it to him with a generous, guilty smile. That was when I discovered that my darling husband was a voracious reader. He had been studying the whole time we had been together and never allowed himself the indulgence of a novel. I was so thrilled, I would have married him on the spot had I not already done so twenty four hours earlier. We boarded our flight, arrived in the beautiful Bay of Islands, checked into our Bed and Breakfast, hit the pool side with our books and proceeded to ignore each other for the next few days in in companionable, connubial bliss.
Let me know what you think- are you are Kate Morton fan? Do you love the glamour and tragedy of the pre-war/post war period? Drop me a line in the comments below or if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

Chapel of Secrets

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

The village of Roslin, Scotland is nothing very special in itself. It consists of a narrow stone-fronted main street, a small patch of village green and surrounding sweeps of beautiful, wild Scottish countryside. But the Rosslyn Chapel is another story entirely. Construction on the chapel began in 1446, and through a long association with the Freemasons (and an alleged association with the Knights Templar) the Rosslyn Chapel has grown about itself an aura of mystery and legend. There are rumours of a hidden underground vault, secret medieval chests, and whispers of the Holy Grail. Throughout the interior of the chapel are ornate and elaborate carvings rich in symbolism and hidden meaning. There is an especially famous and beautiful pillar in the chapel called the Apprentice Pillar. Legend has it that the master mason didn’t believe that his apprentice could carve the beautiful column without seeing the original. The master mason went by himself to view the original pillar and found on his return that the apprentice had already completed the column, and so killed him in a fit of rage by striking him on the head with his mallet. They say, as punishment, the Master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner so that, as punishment, he would forever have to gaze on his apprentice’s work.

Perhaps most intriguing of all the secrets and symbols of the Rosslyn chapel, is the code hidden in the 213 symbols carved into the cubes on the ceiling. This code was broken in 2005 by Scottish composer Stuart Mitchell. He decided, after 20 years of pondering, that the cubes formed a piece of music. The key to unlocking the mystery, said Mr Mitchell in an interview in The Scotsman , ‘lay in the discovery that the stones at the bottom of each of the twelve pillars inside the chapel formed a cadence of which there were only three types known or used in the fifteenth century’. After deciding that the cubes, or rather the pictures on the cubes, were the basis of a musical score, Mr Mitchell found further clues in the chapel about the nature of the piece of music. Carved into the pillars are musicians all playing different instruments used in the playing of the piece. He put the music into triple time and named it The Rosslyn Cannon of Proportions.

I do wonder though, if Mr Mitchell had been a geologist instead of a musician, would the code have read differently for him?

birds-on-wire

In the same interview, Mr Mitchell stated that in his search to crack the code ‘he found a lot of symbolism and decoys to throw people off.’ What if what was decoy to Stuart Mitchell, held great significance to someone else? What if the code, steeped in mathematics, as is music, plays a gentle medieval chant quite incidentally? After all, people can play beautiful pieces of music just by playing the notes formed by a picture of birds sitting on telephone wires (see here).

So if you are travelling to Scotland any time soon, stop by the village of Roslin, check out the mythical chapel and have a look at the ceiling. Perhaps, if you’re a bit of a savant, you won’t need twenty years to interpret the message coded in the cubes. Maybe you’ve already been there and have your own theories? I’d love to hear them if you do! Let me know your theories about this or any other piece of puzzling architecture in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!