I adored this beguiling illustrated memoir about an extraordinary family home in the Scottish Borders, and the gifted but maddening parent whose vision it was. High Sunderland was designed on a modernist open-plan grid by her father, renowned textile designer Bernat Klein. It was like living in a work of art, but as a teen, Klein rebelled against it, flaunting her preferred Laura Ashley florals in front of her horrified parent. But when she returned 30 years later to care for her ageing father, she came to appreciate both him and the house anew.
She writes particularly well about the Scottish landscape and its consolations. The smell of lanolin is “soured milk, snow, sweat, ice, raw pine needles”; a view includes “the blurred outline of trees and hedges and dykes. Scuffed drifts of willow herb alongside creamy ridges of hawthorn. Rain sluicing down from the hillsides. Rivers gartered by mists.” I suppose it is strange that grief should produce such a life-affirming book, but it has. Read it for the solace it contains, or for its captivating descriptions. Either way, it’s a delight.
This deeply affectionate book ends with the scattering of Klein’s parents’ ashes in the garden of High Sunderland (would Bernat have deplored the mess?). Finally, having done this, she feels ready to leave.
By writing this book, beautifully illustrated with photos of the house and her parents in it, Klein has preserved them and it for posterity.
Bernat Klein not only lived in the house but, according to his daughter, lived through it. It became an expression of his self and he maintained an almost fanatical order, only allowing in certain pieces of (modernist) furniture and certain pictures. He was upset when Shelley put up a poster in her bedroom (as it could be seen from the living room through all that glass). To avoid spoiling the view of the landscape, her play house had to be built so far away in the garden, out by the woods, that Shelley was terrified to go there.
She arranges it like a floor plan, taking us through it room by room: from the hallway, with its single piece of furniture, a Danish chair on which it was forbidden to sit or place coats, through the living room, “as clean and well lit a space as a Nordic snowscape”, to the kitchen, where her parents would argue how long roast beef should be cooked. She also shows us the garden, which to Beri’s annoyance was sometimes disfigured by molehills, which interrupted the flow of the lawns. Photos are included but this isn’t a coffee table book for interior design buffs. Each room has particular memories for Klein. And her journey through them is also a psychological quest, an attempt to understand how the house shaped her personality and whether she can ever get free of her attachment.
There’s also plenty of self-reflection. “I wonder if I’m more secretive, more withholding, than I might otherwise have been,” she writes, since her childhood largely took place in a building with just two non-transparent rooms. Secrecy is not, however, a trait found in her writing, which is at times disarmingly honest.
Her openness pays off — we get a full and nuanced portrait of her life and all those in it. When, after her father’s death in 2014, Klein flicks through a brochure of coffins and jokes, “Dad wouldn’t have been seen dead in one of these,” we don’t share the undertaker’s horror. We simply smile, knowing she is quite right.