The Oxford Inheritance: A Novel

  • By Ann A. McDonald
  • William Morrow
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
  • April 1, 2016

An unusual mixed-genre tale of self-discovery and family secrets

The Oxford Inheritance: A Novel

Only a rare book can cross genres so seamlessly that readers enjoy the flow without tripping over the transition. With a few startling, if not jarring, exceptions, The Oxford Inheritance is that book. Following a young woman through the heady intellectual pursuits of Raleigh College in Oxford and the hidden depths of a secret society built on power and influence, the novel is part historical fiction, part murder mystery, and — most surprisingly — part science fiction.

On the surface, Cassandra Blackwell may seem like any other student when she arrives in Oxford. She signs up for classes, settles into her new rooms, and slowly begins to familiarize herself with the surrounding city and a cast of supporting characters: the vivacious Evie, a “slim sprite of a woman with blond hair twisted into a crown of braids”; the acerbic Elliot, “King of the Vaults” at an off-campus library; and the handsome, mysterious Hugo, a “fallen angel: all angles and razor-cut cheekbones, his eyes unnervingly dark against the pale gold of the rest of his coloring.”

Unbeknownst to her classmates, however, Cassie is in single-minded pursuit of the answer to a puzzle around which her whole life has revolved — the riddle of her mother Joanna's past, an eerie story that began during a year abroad at Oxford and ended with Joanna’s suicide when Cassie was 14.

Cassie knows that her mother fled Oxford, pregnant and terrified, after one semester at Raleigh, and she has spent her childhood nervously bearing witness to the temper tantrums and mood swings that seem to have been caused by whatever her mother was fleeing from. So after her mother’s death, Cassie does everything she can to disappear from the grid — to make herself invisible to the forces that pursued her mother to her grave.

Ten years later, however, the proverbial mysterious package, beckoning her dead mother back to Oxford to “end this for good,” propels Cassie into a new life despite her hesitance: “It had taken her years to sand her life down to its current frictionless state. Did she really want to dig up painful memories and disturb the ghosts that had barely been laid to rest?"

Author Ann A. McDonald skillfully guides Cassie through her first few weeks at Raleigh, but she also unintentionally distracts the reader from the narrative with awkward, difficult-to-believe scenes and language. Just hours after Cassie arrives at Raleigh, for instance, she attends a welcoming event held by the master of the college. Rather than keep a low profile, Cassie wanders around the private, off-limits rooms of the mansion; it is hard to imagine someone so nervous about guarding secrets, and so bent on uncovering a dangerous mystery, would risk the discovery that inevitably results from her trespassing. Similarly, words and phrases like “cuz,” “shank,” and “How about that game on the weekend?” seem uniquely American and out of place in the British characters’ mouths.

As Cassie continues researching her mother’s past in the musty shelves of Oxford’s libraries, she notices eerie parallels with her own experiences at the college. Classmates’ jokes about secret societies take on new meaning when Cassie finds her roommate hanged from their living-room ceiling — a scene that provides fodder for some of the most heart-wrenching and understatedly beautiful writing in the book:

“Her eyes went to the beam. She saw Evie there, all over again. Cassie felt her chest constrict. It had been wrong, all wrong, to find her like that, with everything else around her so ordinary…She wondered for a hundredth time when the terrible decision had been made. Had Evie sipped her tea and planned it? Put down her mug, walked to the supply closet, paused to organize her notes in a neat pile before she looped the makeshift noose across the beam?”

Despite her misgivings about Evie’s death, Cassie continues to follow the threads of intrigue through what seems at first to be a fairly predictable maze. This predictability — Cassie’s discovery of old photographs, her indecision about whom to trust, her visit to a British manor housing a decades-old secret — is all a front for the sharp right turn McDonald engineers when she reveals that the cult Joanna was involved with is not only secret, but also otherworldly. An ancient force is rupturing the barrier between this world and another: “Beneath the whirl of hunger, [Cassie] felt a seam in the form: a jagged edge, the split in reality that was letting the darkness through…the beginning of everything. And the end.”

This is where things get a little tricky. It’s not easy to make such a revelation without losing readers’ confidence in the book’s flow, but McDonald pulls it off through the sheer strength of her heroine. Readers may need some time to adjust to the new narrative dimension, but they will still be cheering for Cassie as she fights her way through difficulties both mundane and supernatural.

Ultimately, this book is not unnecessarily complex; it’s the story of a strong, determined young woman forcing the world to acknowledge her place in it by any means necessary. And who could argue with that?

Mariko Hewer is a born-and-raised Washingtonian whose hobbies include reading, running, and writing. Her favorite food is saag paneer.

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