Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Death in the Castle by Pearl S. Buck

Little bang in this Buck
Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize for her early novels about China (most notably The Good Earth), which explored the differences between Eastern and Western cultures and the universal humanity that unites the two. After becoming a Nobel Laureate, Buck still had 35 years of career left. She used that time to branch out beyond China into a variety of subjects and settings, becoming a popular historical novelist along the lines of a James Michener. Though she deserves credit for not resting on her laurels, not all of Buck’s experiments were successful. Death in the Castle, published in 1965, proves that amid her prolific output there lies a hacky work or two.

Starborough Castle, one of the oldest surviving castles in England, is the residence of Sir
Richard Sedgley, whose family has lived there for centuries, and his wife Lady Mary. Like feudal lords of old, the Sedgleys preside over the farms of the surrounding countryside, but as modern castle owners they graciously open their home to tourists one day a week. Despite his aristocratic heritage, Sir Richard has fallen on financial hard times. He agrees to meet with a wealthy American, John Blayne, who proposes to turn the castle into an art museum. Due to a miscommunication, the Sedgleys don’t realize until Blayne arrives that what he really intends is to buy the castle and ship it brick by brick to Connecticut. Reluctant to lose his home in this way, Sir Richard refuses Blayne’s offer, but Blayne decides to hang around a while in hopes that he can convince him to change his mind. Blayne’s decision to stay is also influenced by his attraction to the Sedgley’s beautiful servant, Kate Wells, who was born and raised in the castle and is treated as a sort of foster granddaughter.

Like many an old castle, there are rumors of ghosts. The Sedgleys speak of them as a reality, referring to the unseen spirits as they or them (always in italics). Buck never capitalizes on their potential for thrills and chills, however. For most of the novel’s length, nothing much really happens. There are maybe a dozen suspenseful pages out of the 185. It’s all build-up with little payoff, like one of those B-grade horror movies from the ‘70s that takes itself too seriously, where you have to sit through an hour and a half of ominous music before you see any blood. The few shocks the book actually delivers are dulled by being telegraphed far in advance.

Rather than a thriller or a chiller, Death in the Castle reads more like a Harlequin romance novel. I don’t know if I would call Buck a feminist, but she has always had strong female leads in her novels. Here, however, the story is told largely from the perspective of Kate, who comes across as an emotional child, her heart constantly a-flutter over Blayne. Her sole purpose in life seems to be to wait around the castle until a man plucks her from it. She suffers from her servant status, which makes her undesirable to men of quality, yet she’s so beautiful, Buck can’t help but point out, she must have some royal blood in her. While Buck has always backed up her novels with detailed research and intimate knowledge of the countries she’s covered, her depiction of British life here is simplistic and hokey. In a brief author’s note, she says the novel was inspired by a visit she made to a castle in England, and that seems to be the extent of her research.

I’m a fan of Buck’s work, so I kept trying to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one, but the final pages are really cheesy and riddled with clichés. Buck obviously has a good command of the English language, so it’s competently written, but that’s about the best I can say for it.
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