One From the Archive: ‘Keepers of the House’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran ****

I purchased this beautiful striped Virago when I placed rather a large Book Depository order for two reasons: the first, that it was only about £3.50, and the second that Lisa St Aubin de Teran is an author whom I have wanted to read for ages.  Keepers of the House is her debut novel and the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and was first published in 1982.

Keepers of the House tells of the ‘eccentric and flamboyant Beltran family [who] have ruled their desolate Andean valley’ since the eighteenth century.  We are first introduced to our protagonist, Lydia Sinclair, when she is a young woman.  She has fallen in love with Don Diego Beltran, and leaves her native England to be with him in South America.  Lydia is seventeen when the novel begins, and is struggling to adjust to the vast differences between her leafy British life and the searing heat of Hacienda La Bebella.  Diego is considerably older than his new wife (thirty six to her seventeen), with ‘debauched good looks and his pride’.

St Aubin de Teran’s description of Lydia in comparison to those in the nearby village is marvellously striking:

“The children laughed a little at her strangeness and the sheer height of her, but the older ones recognized in her a vision of the past, and they were full of hope for what she might do.”

Indeed, all of the descriptions throughout are lovely; the sprawling house is ‘like a tumbledown palace’, for example.  Consequently, the scenes which St Aubin de Teran crafts are vivid, particularly as much emphasis is placed upon the importance of the natural world.  The sense of place is wonderfully strong, and the author makes use of such historical events as forest fires, the shifting climate, and plagues of locusts leaving devastation and starvation in their wake to further geographically ground her work.  St Aubin de Teran also uses the history of the Beltran family, focusing on several past generations and showing how their choices affected those who came after them.  The characters, without exception, are crafted so deftly.

I do not read enough books which are set within South America (despite my fascination with the continent and my desire to travel its breadth), but Keepers of the House has certainly made me want to explore the fiction of the geographical area.

St Aubin de Teran’s novel is a highly autobiographical work.  Most of the details within its pages, even down to Lydia’s pet vulture Napoleon, are based upon events which occurred in her own life, and are all the more fascinating for it.  She has created a great and sweeping novel, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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