Monday, February 06, 2017

“The House by the Lake” by Ella Carey - The Memento of a Bygone Life

The House by the Lake by Ella Carey

The Good Days Before the Storm

World War II is a conflict that needs no introduction, forever marking our history books with a litany of studies dedicated to dissecting every single part of the conflict, studying it and bringing the truth to light. The damage and chaos it caused are unquantifiable, claiming millions upon millions of lives and forever wounding many more. So many were forced to flee and leave behind the things and people that made up their lives until then, essentially becoming stripped of the great parts of their identity that they've worked their whole lives to assemble. When the war finally came to an end, many people tried to return to their lands but too much suffering had been sown into the land; thing would never go back to the way they used to. And so, many people carried souvenirs of a time they knew would never return, a time before the innocent were consumed by war.

Ella Carey draws upon this nostalgic desire in The House by the Lake, telling a story that switches from the past to the present and focuses on a family caught in the middle of the violent changes that swept over Europe in the 1930s. More precisely, we're introduced to Anna, happily living in present-day San Francisco without a worry in the world. One day, her grandfather, Max, reveals a truth he carefully kept hidden from her: their family was part of the Prussian aristocracy, and over seventy years ago he was exiled from the estate by force. Unfortunately, he had left behind a precious memento, one he didn't have a chance to recover for many years, and now it's up to the able-bodied Anna to take the plane on the road to her family's past. However, as with any secret, her grandfather had reasons for keeping it all from her, and the closer she draws to her goal, the more she questions how much she really knows about him and the family and how deep secrets can really run.

Double Approach

As mentioned before, in this book we're treated to a double narrative, one taking place in the present day following Anna, and the other one back in the 1930s. The first one, as you can imagine, is rather straightforward in terms of what you can expect to see. It follows Anna on a linear journey to discover the truth about her family and the motivations that drove her grandfather all these years ago. This narration is the one where new questions keep popping up and the shroud of mystery is at its thickest. Carey does a good job in terms of exposition and pacing, always feeding us a few answers and then peppering us with more questions, pushing us to turn one page after the next and dig deeper into the family that becomes more fascinating by the chapter.

The second narrative, the one taking place in the past focuses more on providing us answers, and rest assured that everything is explained quite clearly, vividly and concisely; the author doesn't tease us with half-truths, cliffhangers or vague clues with a million interpretations. I found this part to be interesting for the depth in which it examined Max's moral and rational compass when he was faced with making difficult life-altering choices.

Silence and Heartaches

As with most WWII stories, love plays a pretty big part in this one. In the 1930s we get to see Max and Isabelle, his French girlfriend, and the war-time trials their relationship was subjected to. In the present day, Anna makes the acquaintance of a certain Wil Jager upon arriving in Germany, a young lawyer who falls for her and offers his help if it means making her happy. There are many parallels between the two stories as well as the recurring theme of love being the force that makes life worth living in the first place, despite all the heartaches and hardships it brings.

Carey takes care to touch on the human side of her characters as much as possible, and regardless of whether they committed foul deeds she wants to make us understand them. She wants us to see the suffering that was imposed on Max and Isabelle like so many others, and why innumerable people were forced into silence and secrecy.

Ella Carey in Shape

Summarily, The House by the Lake is an engaging and emotionally-powerful book that succeeds in telling a gripping mystery, inspiring love stories, and a thought-provoking fictional family biography. The prose is simple, beautiful and flows easily from one page to the next, telling a tale of hope and heartbreak. If you enjoy WWII-themed mysteries and family sagas, I strongly recommend you check this book out.

Ella Carey

Personal site

Ella Carey is an Australian author who has claimed Paris as her second home, with all of her stories so far being set in the timeless city of love. Paris Time Capsule was her first novel and the one that launched her into literary notoriety, after which followed the highly-acclaimed The House by the Lake and the widely-beloved From a Paris Balcony.

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