December 2004

Jessa Crispin


Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton

It is getting more and more difficult to review a book published by Persephone Books without first gushing about how wonderful the publisher is. Persephone is dedicated to bringing books by and about women back into print, and each and every book they publish is worth reading. They continue their streak with Helen Ashton’s Bricks and Mortar, a novel that follows a young couple from their first meeting to the husband’s death some forty years later.

We first meet Martin on holiday in Italy. He is an aspiring architect, very much in love with his profession even if he doesn’t quite excel at it. He finds himself seated next to Lady Stapleford and her daughter Letty at the pension’s dinner table and his naiveté is quickly taken advantage of by Lady Stapleford. She wants someone, anyone, to marry her daughter, and once she decides Martin is the man to do it, she will not be stopped. They are forced from a quick engagement to an even quicker marriage – all before his vacation is over -- even while Martin is not sure how to support his unexpected family.

Martin begins to realize the woman he assumed Letty was is nothing like who she really is. Her silence was not a sign of depth or understanding, it merely masked her complete disinterest in anything he had to say. Her eagerness to get married was just a passing fancy, and once they were betrothed she began crying for her mother. Neither Martin nor Letty was ready for marriage, but they try to make the best of it. Letty gives birth to a daughter, whom she is deeply ambivalent about, and then a son, whom she dotes on excessively.

However, having children does not rekindle anything, it only arranges a lifestyle that makes their marriage tolerable to both:

“She was as gentle and tender to him as ever, but their young love was over; some vital current had ceased to flow between them. She seemed unconscious of any barrier, but there was no quickening flutter in her look and colour when she met him again: she treated him with placid, calm affection, but she made no movement that could stir a sleeping impulse; she had ceased to look for romance in him, she no longer responded to his love-making, and was quietly content with her daily life… He was left with a sense of strange, irreparable loss; the dear, dull, familiar woman who now shared his domestic life was not the Letty he had married; his heart ached for the loss of that bright, foolish creature.”

However, life goes on. The children grow. The daughter rebels, the son becomes too comfortable with his mother’s undying affection and becomes soft. Martin throws himself into his work, ever struggling to meet the needs and wants of his family. Martin slowly realizes that the marriage was a mistake, and without his work he would consider his life to be worthless.

Bricks and Mortar is a remarkable profile of a family that perhaps should not have been. Ashton is able to portray the family’s disintegration with dignity and subtlety, without blame pushed onto either side. It is a quiet book, but very readable, and Ashton is a true find. Just another brilliant book brought back to life by Persephone.

Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
Persephone Books
ISBN: 1903155398
312 Pages