There’s a special pleasure in finding something another reader has left in a used book. While reading you might come across a train ticket, a receipt or a passage in the text that’s been emphatically underlined. Suddenly you find yourself connected to an unknown reader from some period in the past. If you have a curious and imaginative mind you might wonder if the previous owner read this book while on a busy journey or alone in a study. Did she/he finish it? What did she/he think about it? It’s a unique feeling of connectedness that’s entirely different from the enjoyment of cracking open a pristine new book. “The Sacred Combe” is a family saga told not by immersing the reader in specific stories about different generations, but providing flashes from their lives which have been left in their enormous library. The narrator and the reader of this novel must piece together their story from what scraps of personal information different family members have left within the books that they read.
The central story of Thomas Maloney’s compelling debut novel features an undeniably alluring job for any serious book lover. Banker Samuel Browne turns to reading for comfort and to take his mind off from the collapse of his personal life when his wife suddenly leaves him. He tackles Edward Gibbon’s multi-volume enormous text “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and finds within it a cryptic advertisement to volunteer in someone’s private library. When his brief phone application for the job is accepted he leaves his London life for a rural northern location. Here he meets an elderly man named Arnold Comberbache who presides over Combe Hall, a 230 year old collection of books which is “one of the finest private libraries in the country.” A vital personal letter has been hidden somewhere in this library by Arnold’s ancestor Hartley. Thomas is charged with searching through each book one by one. Along the way, he unravels the fascinating history of the Comberbache family by discovering notes written in the books’ margins, letters tucked between the pages or intriguing references to significant events. He also has the pleasure of nosing through a plethora of rare and unusual books!
During his patient search, Samuel meets the remaining people who are associated with the historic hall such as the punctilious housekeeper Miss Synder or the mysterious young scarred artist Rose who help fill in missing details not found in the texts. He also explores the large estate which includes many hidden curiosities such as a special temple in the forest built to appreciate light and the movement of celestial bodies. Samuel’s complete immersion in the story of this family which is entangled with a mystery about one of the great poet’s of the age provides a way for him to escape the desolation of his marriage and start anew. It’s an escape into a meditative space. It is observed how “When the cordons of habit are withdrawn, the unruly forces of the mind strike out in new directions. Our own thoughts can seem almost as unfamiliar to us as our new surroundings: reason itself begins to turn in our grasp.” In the alien environment of Comberbache family’s historic abode, Samuel gains a valuable perspective about what he wants in life and finds himself unexpectedly entangled in the family’s complex narrative.
Maloney does well to avoid any clichéd resolutions to the novel. Instead he creates an intriguing conclusion which can be interpreted in different ways. This book isn’t about neat resolutions, but a process of discovery. There are moments when the story about the family becomes somewhat convoluted – especially because many of the Comberbaches have the same first names (something Arnold himself admits is confusing for archivists). But patient readers will be rewarded with a complex puzzle to uncover scandalous events involving opium, infidelity and plagiarism. “The Sacred Combe” is a cleverly-structured moving meditation for anyone who isn’t sure what step they should next take in life. It’s a richly immersive bibliophile’s fantasy. Appropriately for its subject matter, this novel also has a gorgeously designed cover itself.