BOOK REVIEW(?) – The Crocodile by the Door

I’m only roughly calling this a book “review” because I’m less writing this as a review of Selina Guinness’ work and more simply because I want to talk about the story at large. As many of you know, I don’t commonly read non-fiction, but after visiting Tibradden last year during my final residency of graduate school and hearing her read a portion of the book, I had to buy it. Sure, sheep and farming and whatever aren’t usually my forte…? But there was something about this that pulled me in. (And now, a year later, I’ve finally read it and found out why.)

Guinness’ book isn’t about farming or sheep or even the house or the crocodile in the title–it’s about family, and balancing the Old Way of Things and the new world order, and finding your place in a world that has roots far beyond you and what you remember. It makes the title of the book particularly relevant. The crocodile is an actual crocodile head, shot by Selina’s great-grandfather’s brother and turned into a letterbox for his siblings at home. It remained there all through Selina’s times there. It plays essentially no further role in the narrative of the story other than as something that exists in the house, and continues to exist in the house throughout. There’s no major plot point that revolves around it; it isn’t stolen or defaced or sold; it’s just there. And somehow, I’m convinced that it’s the center of everything else that happens in this book.

The book covers 10 years, from 2002 to 2012, with flashbacks to earlier years chronicling Selina’s childhood in and around Tibradden. It tells the tale of a beautiful old house, historic and as much as part of the family as any of the human members, that is slowly falling apart. It tells the tale of the man living here, the uncle Charles, who is also slowly falling apart. And it tells the tale of Selina Guinness, trying so hard to walk the line between keeping alive the dream of her uncle and all those who have lived in Tibradden for years…and attempting to appease the world around her, who desperately want to snatch up her land to make housing complexes and golf courses.

A view of a back garden from a second-story window.
A view of a back garden from a second-story window.

It’s perhaps not the most common story here Stateside, but it’s one we’ve heard, even in just the lyric of a song: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” While this type of behaviour always troubles the locals significantly, I have to feel that it hurts me close to equal. I have always loved the times I’ve spent in the British Isles, but particularly Ireland. There is a beauty and grandeur to everything in that place that nothing in the United States has ever replicated for me. There is history, and an ancient feeling to the place. We are too young of a country to feel that way–unless perhaps we turn to our Native siblings. But standing on the stones outside Tibradden, looking out over the impossibly emerald green fields and the sheep to see Dublin’s buildings stretched out below… I felt I knew some small part of what Ms. Guinness must have felt as the world tried to buy her land from her. I couldn’t bear to see the view of Dublin Bay be blocked off, to lose the tranquility of the farmland.

Luckily, she seemed to agree with me.

The book closes saying that Tibradden is open to the public now 60 days of the year (as of 2012, at least) and visitors can come in and see the house so described and loved in the book. They can see the paintings, the marble pillars, the arched windows. But the final sentence tells it all for me: “Sooner or later, their gaze will settle and I’ll be asked to tell them the story of the crocodile that stands guard by the door.”

From first pages to last, the crocodile has kept watch. The subtitle of the book reads “The Story of a House, a Farm, and a Family.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the book. It’s a lovely tale of Irish life, the line between historical and profitable, and how sheer persistence and belief can keep someone going through anything. Very much worth a read.

Rating: **** Recommended

For more information on Tibradden, check out the Irish Historic Houses Association’s page for it here.

The view from the stone drive at the front of Tibradden, looking down at Dublin and Dublin Bay
The view from the stone drive at the front of Tibradden, looking down at Dublin and Dublin Bay

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