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The present meets the past in an unlikely coincidence of events in this recent novel by the latest most successful Australian author you may, like me, not have heard of. Looking at her profile, that her books have sold more than 10 million world wide, and that she has been on the New York Times bestseller lists, I have definitely missed something. So I was very much looking forward to getting myself lost in this novel, set like her previous novels, somewhere in Cornwall.
Cornwall would appear to be not the only common factor – in her past novels, there is a mystery of some sort surrounding people who live/have lived in Cornwall, often something/someone abandoned, a family link from the present to the past, and a modern day character, usually female, going through some sort of crisis who ends up reconciling or solving whatever the mystery may be. A winning formula, and fully embraced in this latest novel.
Ms Morton is a master at weaving her plot, the many strands, threads and tenuous links that keep the reader involved and constantly wondering what the next reveal will be. The opening pages, in August 1933, have an unnamed female traipsing through mud and rain in the early dawn, digging a hole with a spade, burying a box in it, and covering the evidence. The perfect setting for a mystery.
The multi-faceted plot essentially focuses on two people. Alice Edevane, now very elderly and living in London, is a prolific and successful writer of whodunnits. Alice has never got over the disappearance of her 11-month-old brother Theo at a Midsummer’s Eve party in June 1933. The party was at her family’s historical country house in Cornwall. She harbours suspicions about people who were involved in the disappearance, but with no body or evidence of foul play ever turning up, this is actually the biggest mystery of her life.
Seventy years after said disappearance, Sadie Sparrow, a young woman detective, is going through a particularly difficult time in her work. On leave visiting her grandfather in Cornwall, she stumbles upon the old house, now derelict and deserted. She immediately senses that something happened here, and she takes it upon herself to solve the long-standing mystery of the missing child.
The plot development, with its red herrings, taking the reader up the garden path and back down again, is superbly done – it really and truly is a mystery, and many many pages are read as each twist and turn is fully explored, then either discarded or put into the memory bank for later use. And so you keep turning the pages, to find out what happened to this family, way back in June 1933.
Alice, a young girl of enormous intellect and imagination, passionately in love with Ben the gardener, was sixteen at the time. She had an elder sister Deborah, a free-spirited younger sister Clemmie, and a baby brother Theo. Their parents are Eleanor and Anthony who are doing their utmost to deal with the fallout of Anthony’s WWI experiences in France – clearly post traumatic stress, but of course undiagnosed and not fully understood at that time.
As well as the post-war trauma, the loss of a child is a recurring theme. Not only with the disappearance of young Theo, but also still birth, adoption, child abandonment, what a mother will do to protect her child, and what happens to a mother in the protection of her child. These themes are sensitively and honestly handled, and all lend credence to the storyline.
I was disappointed, however, with a couple of elements of the story. The cover, as beautiful and enticing as it is, doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the story. It is also a tad too long: at 591 pages, I had trouble holding it up in bed – but more than that, I thing an editor could have trimmed 150 pages off it without losing anything of the storytelling or mystery solution. The major problem for me, given the twists and turns in the narrative, is how neatly and tidily everything is resolved at the end. And so I shut this book with a frustrating big bang and thought well, after 591 pages of tension and expectation, this was just too happily ever after for words.
For all that, if you are looking for a great holiday read by the pool/beach/lake, this will do very nicely.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
The Lake House
by Kate Morton
Published by Allen & Unwin