Fic­tion

Ash­ton Hall

  • Review
By – August 25, 2022

Who hasn’t dreamed of retir­ing to an idyl­lic estate in the Eng­lish coun­try­side? In Lau­ren Belfer’s Ash­ton Hall, that vision turns out to be a bit more com­plex when Han­nah Lar­son vis­its her ail­ing rel­a­tive at the tit­u­lar his­toric manor house along­side Nicky, her young son with spe­cial needs. What starts out as a fam­i­ly vis­it becomes much more unex­pect­ed the moment Nicky comes across a hid­den room clois­ter­ing a six­teenth-cen­tu­ry skeleton.

Ash­ton Hall is not a ghost sto­ry (though it does hark back to clas­sic works of goth­ic fic­tion). Rather, the dis­cov­ery of the skele­ton and the mys­tery sur­round­ing it pro­pel Han­nah to take stock of her own life. As she mulls over the pos­si­ble iden­ti­ty of the deceased woman, she reflects on her unfin­ished PhD, her depen­dence on her hus­band, and the strug­gles of rais­ing a neu­ro­di­ver­gent son.

A col­or­ful cast of char­ac­ters inhab­its Ash­ton Hall, such as the estate admin­is­tra­tor Felic­i­ty Gard­ner and Dr. Tins­ley, an archivist with a secret smok­ing habit. The result is that both Ash­ton Hall and its char­ac­ters feel like a splen­did work of imag­i­na­tion as well as deeply real. Anglophile read­ers will long to wan­der the cor­ri­dors of this mag­nif­i­cent estate, and per­haps vis­it the gift shop as well.

Hannah’s ques­tions of belong­ing direct­ly relate to her ambigu­ous Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Born to a sin­gle moth­er who taught biol­o­gy, chem­istry, and Latin at a pri­vate school, Han­nah was raised to be flu­ent in both Ancient Greek and Latin, and to pur­sue the career in acad­e­mia from which her moth­er, as a younger woman, had been barred. Mar­got, who was saved by the Kinder­trans­port (“children’s trans­port” in German)during the Holo­caust, didn’t raise Han­nah as a reli­gious Jew. The lack of reli­gious struc­ture leaves her daugh­ter won­der­ing about her own spir­i­tu­al­i­ty — all as she explores the his­to­ry of the woman in Ash­ton Hall, trapped pos­si­bly because of her Catholic faith.

Belfer’s writ­ing is gor­geous and high­ly detailed, such that Hannah’s voice reads as clear and pre­cise, nev­er made unbe­liev­able by a false note. Her rela­tion­ship with her son is one of the most effec­tive por­tray­als of rais­ing a child with spe­cial needs in recent lit­er­a­ture. Each char­ac­ter has a rich back­sto­ry and inner life — and the his­to­ry of the estate is fas­ci­nat­ing in its own right.

Ariel­la Carmell is the Edi­tor-at-Large of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where she stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Her writ­ings have appeared in Alma, the Sier­ra Neva­da Review, the Brook­lyn Review, and elsewhere. 

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