"The Fox's Walk"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 21, 2003)"The small conventions[of polite behavior] weren't a substitute for life; they held those lives in place in the same way that the whalebone in the women's corsets defined their figures."
Telling the story of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy through the eyes of a naïve, but perceptive, child, Annabel Davis-Goff chooses a unique point of view for this novel set in Ireland during World War I, a time in which The Troubles, Ireland's grassroots rebellion against England, was also taking place. Alice Moore is only six in 1912, when she journeys from England to Ireland to visit to her grandmother and great aunt at Ballydavid, near Waterford. There she experiences, first-hand, the refined and mannered Edwardian life of an Anglo-Irish estate, with its strict rules of correct behavior, usually unstated. Ballydavid becomes for her a microcosm of the life of the landed Protestant gentry, and she thoroughly enjoys its pleasures.
On subsequent visits in the following summers, Alice, lonely because there are no other children with whom she can play, also comes to know the folks who run the kitchen, tend the horses, and manage the farm, coming into direct contact with the people who make her family's lifestyle possible. When her mother suffers a breakdown and returns to England without her during their visit in the summer of 1915, Alice spends a tumultuous year living at Ballydavid with her elderly, aristocratic relatives, observing but not understanding the life-changing events which unfold around her.
World War I has been raging for two years, killing and maiming young Irishmen without respect to class, and though local opinions differ about whether Irish boys should be defending England at all, most Irish agree that after the war ends, the country will probably achieve Home Rule. In the spring of 1916, while Alice is at Ballydavid, the abortive Easter Rising at the Dublin post office takes place, followed soon after by the quick execution of many of the participants. Within weeks, Roger Casement's ill-fated attempt to land guns at Banna Strand also fails, and he is captured and hanged. Tensions throughout the country grow in response to the harsh sentences and quick justice meted out by the British courts.
To Alice, these executions have been traumatic--"as though the headmistress of the school I used to attend in London had announced at prayers one morning that several of the less satisfactory pupils would be shot that afternoon and--this was where it most felt like a nightmare--although everyone agreed how terrible the executions were, no one did anything to prevent them." Despite these frightening events in Dublin, however, Alice's day-to-day routine continues as usual, and eventually her immediate fears subside. As she explains, "It was unusual for a day to go by at Ballydavid without my learning something about rules, manners, conventions, and behavior. I didn't think them as important as the war, death, or my father's financial woes, but they were more immediate to my life." It is here, in the ironic distancing of Alice from the real issues of life in the Irish countryside, that this novel truly comes alive. The reader, granted hindsight, recognizes the import of the historical events that are happening around Alice while she does not. As Davis-Goff brings these events to life, Alice and her family reflect upon their significance in their own lives, but not in the grand scheme of things. They realize that their way of life is destined to change, but they do not recognize the imminence or magnitude of these changes.
As much a product of their times as the people who will eventually dispossess them, Alice's family is not evil, however insensitive and close-minded they might be. Like the rest of the aristocracy, they have no choice but to go through the motions of their day-to-day lives "behaving as though the world as [they] knew it would continue if enough of [them] pretended nothing irreparable had taken place." When the family decides to hold a large, tennis party at the end of the summer of 1916, as they have done traditionally, the party occurs against the backdrop of the war in France and only a few weeks after the executions in Dublin. All facets of society-gentry, servants, British soldiers stationed in Ireland, local residents, and revolutionaries--all come together in one afternoon, and inevitable events take their course.
Davis-Goff's novel describes the Irish Revolution as it is seen from the drawing room of an Anglo-Irish estate. In a most unusual move, the author presents this life with sympathy, understanding, and no apologies, though she does not condone the inequities inherent in the lifestyle. Like the family at the heart of the story, she describes major historical events in a polite, polished, and distanced fashion, the impact of these events enhanced by the innocence of Alice, through whose eyes they are observed. The plot, on the surface, sometimes seems to lack excitement as Alice and her family concern themselves with domestic conflicts and personal tragedies, paying little heed to the growing rebellion, but this quietude is misleading. The tension builds inexorably as the reader sees the violence escalating and Alice's family and friends failing to act.
Clever and subtle in its structure, this is a novel in which the most significant action-the loss of Ballydavid and the lifestyle it represents--takes place offstage, after the novel has concluded. The author, having recreated this genteel, lost lifestyle in all its details--even including the strictures which govern the eating of a tea sandwich, the difference between dresses of full mourning and "half-mourning," and the need for tennis dresses to reveal no more than an ankle--brings the family just to the moment of its own climactic awakening and no further. Wisely, she lets the reader fill in the blanks, guided at the end by Alice, many years later, reminiscing about her early life and "the course of history [that] swept away the very foundations of the way we lived." Restrained and understated, this story of the Irish rebellion may be unique in its quiet acceptance of the rightness of change.
- Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- The official Web site for Annabel Davis-Goff
- The New York Times review of The Dower House
- Chapter Excerpt for This Cold Country
- The New York Times review of This Cold Country
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About the Author:
Annabel Davis- Goff was born in County Waterford, Ireland. She lives in New York City.