This is a book that offers a lovely escape into the past.
It twists together the stories of two governesses, grandmother Harriet and grand-daughter Grace, whose lives are entangled with the family whose children they will both teach.
Grace was brought up by her grandmother after her parents died in a train crash. She loved listening to her grandmother’s stories of the days when she was governess at Fenix House; she spoke of the house and how life was lived there; of her charges, Helen and Victoria; and of their brother Bertie, who joined them when he was home from school.
When Grace saw an advertisement for a governess at Fenix House, not long after the end of the Great War, she she knew that she had to apply for the position, hoping to see the wonderful house and family that had been described to her so very vividly.
She secured the position, but she found that the house and the family were in decline, and that her position was going to be rather more difficult than that of her grandmother, half a century earlier. And she found that her grandmother hadn’t told her everything, and that sometimes her stories had been quite unlike her real life.
That was why Harriet started to write long letters to her granddaughter, telling the real story of why she went to Fenix House, and of the dramatic events that unfolded when she was there.
Grace was finding things out for herself too, and she was finding that her own story was echoing her grandmother’s ….
The two stories – one in the third person and one in the first person – were beautifully told. The house lived and breathed; a lovely cast of characters captured my attention and my imagination; the atmosphere, the mystery and intrigue, were pitch perfect; the gothic overtones were so very well done.
I appreciated that the two stories were close enough in time that many of the characters appeared in both, at very different stages in life, that they were both set in the past, and that they were brought together in a way that sets this book apart from other stories that move between different periods.
There are significant echoes of older stories – nicely acknowledged by the author.
The best way I can explain it is to say imagine that those books – family sagas, tales of governesses, big house stories, tales of the supernatural – were vintage china. And that Kate Riordan has thrown that china up into the air and made mosaics from the fragments.
What she made can’t be as lovely as the things that made it, but it has a beauty of its own, and she has brought something of her own to her creation.
She maybe threw a few too many things into the air. The supernatural elements of the story – a touch of second sight – didn’t quite work, and the story could have worked just as well without it. And there were rather too many contrivances needed to bring the story together.
That doesn’t spoil the book as a whole. It was very cleverly plotted; I was captivated from the first page to the last; and I loved that there was a revelation on the very last page that made me think about certain parts of the story, and about how very entangled the histories of family of the governesses and the family of the big house were, all over again.
That’s why I say lovely, just not quite perfect.