Two English teenagers, Alison and Roger, have been brought to a quiet Welsh valley by Roger’s father Clive and Alison’s mother (who remains offstage throughout the novel and interestingly, becomes one of those characters of whom we can only draw a picture from the conversations of others) to stay for the summer in a house which once belonged to Alison’s Uncle Bertram.
The house is also home to the mad gardener Huw, the surly and possessive housekeeper Nancy and her ambitious son, Gwyn.
It’s an impressive novel originally intended for a juvenile readership but, as these things tend to do, ended up being just as popular with adults.
The style is fast-paced, sparse, and doesn’t patronise the reader with pages, or even paragraphs of scene-setting. The reader learns all they need to know from the action, the language and the conversations. The name of the valley is never mentioned, nor even the village, yet within a few pages we are able to find our feet and things immediately start getting weird.
Alison, ill in bed seemingly with stomach-ache, is plagued by scratching noises from the attic above. Gwyn, sent to investigate, discovers only a dinner-service with a complex floral design around the edge of each piece.
Alison discovers that when she traces the design and cuts it out, elements of it can be folded to produce the stylised body of an owl.
The paper owls disappear as she creates them, and with them, the design from beneath the glaze of the plates.
It transpires that an ancient power is still bound by the valley and an emotional and physical triangle is repeating itself down through the ages, finding candidates in each generation to re-enact an old drama in order to release the power stored in the valley.
Huw, Nancy and even long-dead Bertram have secrets of their own which are not fully revealed until the final chapter.
The structure is interesting, in that it is based on the interpersonal dynamics of two sets of triangles, the background triangle being that of Clive, Huw and Nancy whose differences seem irreconcilable, set across divides of class, sex and race, and the secrets Nancy refuses to divulge and which Huw is incapable of explaining lucidly.
No doubt this is why Alison’s mother is kept ‘off the page’ as she is involved in neither triangle and would upset the balance.
Some of the language seems a little archaic now, but I can’t help feeling that it gives the book a kind of period charm.