Shell House

Shell House

4.1 14
by Linda Newbery

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Greg’s casual interest in the history of a ruined mansion becomes more personal as he slowly discovers the tragic events that overwhelmed its last inhabitants. Set against a background of the modern day and the First World War, Greg’s contemporary beliefs become intertwined with those of Edmund, a foot soldier whose confusion about his sexuality and… See more details below


Greg’s casual interest in the history of a ruined mansion becomes more personal as he slowly discovers the tragic events that overwhelmed its last inhabitants. Set against a background of the modern day and the First World War, Greg’s contemporary beliefs become intertwined with those of Edmund, a foot soldier whose confusion about his sexuality and identity mirrors Greg’s own feelings of insecurity.

This is a complex and thought-provoking book, written with elegance and subtlety. It will change the way you think.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A pitch-perfect tale of contemporary teenage life intertwines with an overly dramatic if occasionally moving account of a privileged youth's literally life-changing experiences in the First World War. The modern-day story centers on Greg, who, with his longtime best friend attending another school, comes into his own. He makes friends with Faith, a sheltered and religious girl he meets while exploring and photographing the grounds of Graveney Hall, the shell house of the title, the skeletal remains of a stately home ravaged by fire in 1917. Meanwhile, Greg's thoughts are increasingly occupied by the self-possessed Jordan, an accomplished athlete whose reserved ways hide a piercing intellect and whose friendship takes on a romantic cast. The other narrative thread concerns Edmund Pearson, heir to Graveney Hall and an aspiring poet, whose world has been rocked by two events: the Great War and even more significantly his passionate affair with a fellow soldier, Alex. Scenes of Edmund and Alex at the front are compelling, but when Edmund visits his family (whom he now perceives as stifling and shallow) the novel takes on a callow, sniping tone, as in this description of his intended fianc e: "She had a way of looking at him from under her eyelashes, doe-eyed. Presumably she thought it was appealing." The melodrama of these later episodes stands in contrast to the wonder and compassion that illuminate the bulk of this book. Ages 12-16. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
A shell house represents a ruined estate in the English countryside, the tissue of lies and self-deceptions people use to sustain their daily activity, and a belief system, such as Christianity, which sustains hope that life has meaning and suffering has purpose. All are subject to attack. Sixteen-year-old Greg, an aspiring photographer, helps restore a shell house, burned in a fire during WW I, attempts to establish friendships, and works to identify his own values, artistic ethic, and true sexual orientation. All his efforts are challenged by a local bully; a girl who pursues him for sex only; another girl who wants to convert him from atheism to Christianity; and a male friend who stirs unacknowledged longings in him for physical intimacy. Greg's struggles are contrasted with the love affair Edward, the original heir to the estate, a soldier in WW I, engages in with a fellow soldier while fending off the expectations of his family and society. The language of the novel is lyrical, but the subject matter may provoke controversy. Some scenes are graphic, although the sexuality is couched in imagery, making this novel most suitable for older teens. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, 335p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Myra Marler
Painting a picture with language, Newbery creates likeable, if flawed, characters in this coming-of-age novel full of images. Replete with British terminology, the story might deter all but the best North American readers, as time shifts rapidly between modern day and World War I. Present-day Greg, Faith, and Jordan are juxtaposed with Edmund and Alex, who live during the war years. All are searching for self, their sexuality, and spirituality, as they struggle with an absent God. Soldiers Edmund and Alex, gentry and commoner respectively, explore their secretive relationship. Their physical relationship is tender and contrasts with the more explicit liaison of Greg and pick-up Tanya, who takes his virginity in his effort to prove to himself that he is not gay. Readers are led to believe that Greg might develop a relationship with Faith, who has rejected her Christianity. Reminiscent of Judy Blume's Forever (Bradbury Press, 1975), Greg's anguishing dream sequence is graphically depicted, countering Jordan against Tanya—and Tanya wins. Jordan is a fascinating gay character who is out to his family and hopes for a relationship with Greg. Newbery teases readers with the possibility that perhaps Greg is gay, and unfortunately, Jordan disappears from the story. There lies one of the problems with this novel—an overabundance of plot with several scenes that verge on melodrama and little resolution. There is a sense of loss and poignancy pervading the story as a shell, empty, is about loss. One wishes that Newbery had concentrated on one aspect of the story and fleshed it out, resolving issues rather than giving readers mere images. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P S (Readable without serious defects; Willappeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2002, David Fickling/Knopf, 256p,
— Allan O'Grady Cuseo
School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up-Fred Wright has been accepted to Wessex, a private boarding school, as its new star basketball player. Unfortunately, he has several things working against him. He's not an AB (Alumni Brat), he likes to break the rules, and he has a different attitude from his peers. The story is told through letters, lists, and even time-capsule entries, with narrative chapters added to help fill in the missing information. The school has its standard variety of characters: Noah, the class clown; Allison, the uptight rich girl; Sunday, an AB who would like to break out of the mold; and Mackenzie, the debutante who believes there is a conspiracy going on in the school and is right. The author spends most of the time developing the characters and very little on the plot. In fact, it is not until the last chapter that the plot is revealed, and readers are left with a cliff-hanger ending, but they won't be sure if it's worth the wait for the second installment in the series.-Kim Carlson, Monticello High School, IA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Two stories, past and present, twine together in this haunting British exploration of faith and sexuality. In the past, Lt. Edmund Pearson, scion of a landed family, finds love and loses his faith in the trenches of WWI. In the present, Greg, a working-class teenager, finds himself struggling with both. Physically uniting the two stories is Graveney Hall, the seat of the Pearsons; in its full splendor in the WWI storyline, it has been reduced to a burned-out shell by Greg's time. The parallel stories play off each other perfectly; at the beginning of the novel, Edmund is unabashedly in love with Alex-and Alex with Edmund. Greg is far less certain of himself. He has begun to cultivate a quiet and rewarding friendship with Jordan, a swimmer whose body becomes the subject of some fabulously sensuous writing. At the same time, he encounters Faith while taking photographs around the grounds of Graveney Hall; her outspoken Christianity becomes both an irritant and a fascination for him as he rather chaotically tries to sort out his maturing relationship to the world. If the novel is prone to frequently stagy discussions of God and sex in both times, it is also magnificently paced, unfolding deliberately according to its own rules. Both the ardent Edmund and the less-certain Greg are well realized and thoroughly engaging. The secondary characters are somewhat less so-both Alex and Jordan seem almost too good to be true, although appealing in that goodness, and Faith is simply a cipher, more an eponymous symbol than a human being. These flaws aside, it stands as an ambitious, multilayered, and above all literary contribution to a literature that all too often seeks to dodge complexity. Newbery'sfluid prose has been retained almost entirely intact from the original British, grounding the story firmly in its all-important setting-a welcome change from the trend among American publishers to try to pretend that Britain is simply a far-flung extension of the States. (Fiction. YA)

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

He couldn't face going back indoors.

If he walked in, their faces would look up at him, polite, expectant; they would be ready to make allowances. The meal would be finished: his plate and his scattered cutlery would have been removed from the table, his toppled chair replaced. His mother would have said something to smooth over his rudeness, and the others would make sympathetic noises, some of them genuine.

No-one understood. They would be having coffee now, passing the cream, passing the sugar, in the large room with the windows closed against the spring evening, as if nothing had changed.

Everything had changed.

At the top of the steps to the garden, he filled his lungs with cool air. It was dusk. Light from the windows fell on the terrace, and a fountain played below. Its soft, regular trickle ought to have been soofi-dng, but nothing could soothe him; he had to get away, down the steps, out of sight of the house. Mown lawn welcomed his feet, yielding silently to his

I tread. The cool toughness of cypress leaves brushed his face as he pushed through a row of conifers; the air smelled of grass and damp earth. He closed his eyes as memory surged through him like the delayed aftershock of pain. He felt detached from his body: from his walking feet, his breathing lungs, his mind registering smells and sounds.

In the lower garden, he paused for a moment to listen, looking in the direction of London, thinking of Kent beyond, and the coast. People said that you could sometimes hear the guns, even at this distance. Nothing. He felt oddly disappointed, hearing only the whirr of moth wings, seeing the flicker of a bat; an owl hooted down in the woods. Nothing else disturbed the silence.

He lowered his head and walked on, down a flight of steps towards the glimmer of water, along a mossy path to the grotto.

Chain gang

Greg's photograph: a huge eighteenth-century mansion standing alone. It is built in classical style: weighty, monumental, symmetrical. The frontage is of Portland stone; twinflights of steps rise to the pillared main entrance. The central section is surmounted by a decorative triangular panel sculpted with recliningfigures and a Latin inscription. At a glance, you'd think you were looking at a stately home - a National Trust property, perhaps. Only when you look properly do you see that the door and windows are blank, that there is no roof, and that the house is an empty shell.

'You can't do it,' said Faith. 'You can't make a bargain with God.'

Greg would always remember her saying that, in the grotto, where cold sunlight on the lake rippled patterns of light on the curve of the wall. She sat shrugged into her fleece jacket, her hands tucked up inside the sleeves; her eyes were dark and intense. She

was a girl in a shell, cupped and held like a pearl in an oyster. He saw her as part of an accidentally beautiful composition: dark hair and eyes, scarlet fleece, tile fragments in a swirling pattern behind her. Frame, click! went his mental camera. These were the photographs that stayed in his mind: the ones he hadn't taken.

The first time they met, at the end of summer, he saw her as bossy, imperious. She manipulated him.

He was trespassing. The burnt-out mansion was visible from the main road: sometimes a silhouette on its ridge, sometimes golden in sunlight. Out on his bike with hours of Sunday freedom ahead, he had let curiosity reel him in. He cycled past the sign that said GRAVENEY HALL - PRIVATE on the lodge gates, and on down the long driveway to the ruined mansion, with its commanding position over acres of wheatfields and woods. If it hadn't been for the cars parked along the front drive, he would have poked about, inside and out, taking photographs, ignoring the DANGER signs. He hadn't expected anyone to be here, and was annoyed.

The day was still and humid; sweat trickled between his shoulder-blades and down his back. He leaned his bike against the fence and stood gazing up at the vast shell. Must have been some fire, he thought, to destroy a place this size. It was roofless, open to the sky. All the doors and windows were huge, as if the house had been inhabited by giants.

Most of the outer walls were intact, but through a door beneath the steps he glimpsed piles of collapsed brick, and nettles and even slender trees growing out of the debris. Although the house must be past repair, he saw people working inside, a team of them: shovelling, hacking at the layer of sediment that coated the ground, carting stones in wheelbarrows. A woman with a tray of mugs was picking her way across the rough floor. He hung back, expecting to be challenged, but they were all absorbed in their tasks.

Retreating, he found a way through the makeshift fence that ran along the farthest side of the house, making the place look like a building site. The house was almost as deep as it was wide; there were remains of brick walls here, perhaps from extensions or a conservatory. Making his way round to the back, he emerged into an expanse of derelict garden. He saw a pair of stone surnmerhouses, and a balustrade dividing the garden into two levels. From the driveway, you wouldn't know this was here at all. He took two photographs, imagining how the garden must have looked a hundred and fifty, two hundred years ago. There must have been statues, fountains, the lot, and a whole team of gardeners. The outlines were still visible: the bases of statues, and a raised walk of rough grass down the whole length, with sunken areas either side. And this was only the formal part. He guessed that there would have been more: a kitchen garden for the house, orchards, wooded areas down in the valley.

From the Hardcover edition.

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