Kate Morton, a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland. She lives with her family in Brisbane, Australia. Atria Books: Simon & Schuster
The synopsis I read of this book, where ever I read it, I recall hinted at secrets and mysteries. "Hmm," I thought, "Subtle magic." But, this was not a paranormal book in the sense of what I usually read or review, nor was it really a book where a subtle magic is utilized.
The magic here is the dark magic of secrets too long kept, mysteries too long unsolved, guilt and psychosis which fills this book. This magic isn't cold, rather, it sears with the heat of repressed guilt and anger, and unfulfilled dreams.
The story takes place in two time periods, the era surrounding World War II in Britain, and 1992. The WWII period is roughly from the very start when children were evacuated from London until a year or two after Dunkirk. It starts in London were Edith and Meredith Birchill are preparing to have their Sunday dinner when a letter is passed into their mail slot even though there should not have been a delivery. It is a letter from Meredith's childhood as an evacuee. She has never told her husband or daughter about this part of her youth and refuses to elaborate.
When Edie learns of it she is curious, and her curiosity is further aroused when she, very accidentally, happens on the very place to which her mother was evacuated. Like a cat to the windowsill outside of which a birdfeeder hangs, Edie is drawn into the mystery of why her mother's reticence. Then as she learns more, the mysteries of the house itself and the people who live there. which grow more complex and intertwined as she digs deeper. She gets more than she bargained for, there are ghostly visions a few times — imagined or real, one doesn't know.
Another part of the darkness of the book is about the control a parent can exert over a child and continue to exert even after they pass away. In this book that control is passed on to another family member, Percy, who controls the lives of her twin, Saffy, and half-sister with disastrous results.
While there is a strong plot the book is character-driven and one of the objectives was that Edie learn more about the mother who has hidden her joyous self away in a middle class, steak-and-chips British housewife.
As a character-driven work, Morton makes each character come to life in one's mind. Each character springs to life from the page. Juniper, the young half-sister, is a free spirit, and talented but undirected writer suffering from a psychosis or schizophrenia. Twins Percy and Saffy are completely the opposite of each other; Saffy is soft, yielding, considerate, yearns to get away and Percy is a bit butch, harsh, capable and would like to stay in their castle forever. But, within Saffy, there is also an unyielding strength of devotion to her sisters. Even incidental characters get somewhat developed, as if we can look into their homes a bit.
At 672 pages, this was a bit longer than many of the books I normally read, and filled more with the internal maunderings of the characters than the action to which I am accustomed. As I generally prefer plot-driven books this dragged a bit for me. Much internal work on the part of at least five characters was “holding up” the somethings that needed to happen in order to resolve the several mysteries that are being explored. And, just when I had a grasp on what I thought was the plot it would grow another layer.
But, having said that, the work is so complete, and Morton is such a talented and capable writer that it was an enjoyable and poignant read that helped me stretch a bit as a reader. I would most assuredly recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of in-depth character development, and maybe even those who prefer more plot.
Maybe the development was the real work of the book. The mysteries are solved quickly and at the end, and while not rushed, feel incidental to the resulting relationship between Edie and her mother, Meredith.
Well worth the time and price, especially as it is being heavily discounted by Amazon.
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