Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: 'The Crocodile by the Door' - Selina Guinness

A lot of advice is given to new writers and the one that you hear the most often is "write about what you know." And this is exactly what Selina Guinness, an editor and lecturer in Dun Laoghaire Institute has done. The Crocodile by the Door; The story of a house, a farm and a family tells the story of her move to  with her partner to Tibradden, a run-down and dilapidated country house in the South Dublin Mountains owned by her elderly bachelor uncle and all the events that ensued. The beautiful cover has a gentrified feel about it and the sepia tinted photos and letters on the back beckon the reader in to find out more about Selina Guinness's story.

It's 2007. A house with a view of Dublin from the south,built on land traced back for several generations and land purchases for new house development on a rampage. A requisition of land for a nearby golf course is being negotiated and custodianship of the house has been passed to Selina. Swayed to sell by the enormous sums offered and the opportunity to restore the house, she feels a responsibility to the land and its history and a need to protect it. Telling her story from arrival in May 2002 to a house seemingly unchanged from her childhood, through the months and years as she was appointed ownership of the house by trustees on her uncle's death in 2004. Her trials with the farm through the five years bring us back to the prologue. Moving on to July 2011 to update the story and to an epilogue dated "April 2012."

The title rather exotically refers to a crocodile sitting on a marble-topped chest inside the front door, shot by her great grandfather's brother in Persia - sending the head to a taxidermist in London to be turned into a letterbox. She tells of her conventional suburban upbringing, lunching in Tibradden on Sundays, her parents' early separation, unusual enough in 80s Ireland and her mother's move into art dealership. Selina's refusal to board at secondary school led to her move to Tibradden to live with her teacher uncle and English-born grandmother. Living in their own world, her grandmother and uncle carry on their lives as they always have, with cook, maid, The Archers on Radio 4 and Erin packet soup served in bone china for dinner.

Her move to the house again as an adult carries touching descriptions of her uncles obvious need for company and his effort to "spruce himself up", but Selina sees through the front to the sellotaped glasses and food stains on his clothes. She moves into a house with one three pin socket (the rest are the original round ones from wiring done in 1939), no white goods or mains water supply-just a gravity fed system from the stream. A great clear out follows, clothes are sold to The Abbey Theatre and minor renovations are done. County development planners visit and Selina fears for her uncle's financial struggle's as well as the threat from burglars and poachers. With her uncle's declining health and hospitalisation we are made privy to an old man's fears of his niece's future and his own imminent demise.

But this book is not about an old man's death. It is the memoir of a woman who felt a familial hold on a house and its land and who by recounting the experiences of just five years of her life manages to interweave a whole history. It is a touching insight into the life led by the post-war generation with a "make do and mend" approach to life, a record of the experience of dealing with big developers- sure to go down in Ireland's history as a sorry affair, and a tale of a woman drawn back to a place and a need to do what's right by it.

The Crocodile by the Door is published by Penguin Ireland.

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