The Shadow in the Glass by J. J. A. Harwood

I re-read a beloved book, I read a book that others had loved but that I found disappointing, I wrote a post to celebrate the many books I had loved but not written about this year, and somehow that sent me crashing into a reading slump.

I have picked up and put down books that I usually would have loved, I have done other things, and it was only with this book that I read a novel from start to finish.

It is far from perfect, but it hooked me in for long enough that I had to keep reading to see what would happen. It was the right book at the right time.

If it was a recipe it might read like this:

Take  the following ingredients:

  • a large handful of Cinderella
  • a dash of Doctor Faustus
  • a teaspoon of Victorian Gothic
  • a pinch of fairy dust

Mix together thoroughly and then throw the mixture into the air and see it fly.

The story begins with a young woman creeping into a library at night, knowing that she would be dismissed on the spot if she was discovered, but quite unable to resist the lure of books.

Eleanor set down her candle and surveyed her subjects. Damp equatorial rainforests, steaming in the heat. Versailles, glittering in the dark like an earthbound star. Verona – Juliet on her balcony sighing into the darkness. It was a perfect night for poetry: she could stretch out her legs and whisper sonnets into the slow, hot silence …..

Eleanor had become the ward of the Pembroke family after he mother had died, and Mrs. Pembroke had loved and treated her as she would have loved and treated one of her daughters who had died in infancy, leaving her with a single son. The sudden death of Mrs. Pembroke shattered Eleanor’s life: her widower decided that she had no claim on him and that she must earn her living alongside her household staff, and so Eleanor was renamed Ella and became a housemaid. Mr. Pembroke also fell out with his son, Charles, who left his household; and so his father ruled alone, drinking heavily and harassing the young female servants.

It was on one of her visits to the library that Eleanor encountered a mysterious woman with dark eyes. That woman offered her seven wishes, her price being that she would take Eleanor’s soul after she made her seventh wish. Eleanor accepted eagerly, thinking that she could help the other maids who had become good friends and that she could elevate herself so that she would never be poor or have to work again; and reassuring herself that if she didn’t use her seventh wish her soul would be her own to keep.

It didn’t take Eleanor long to discover that life with wishes was not at all straightforward. Her wishes had consequences, usually unforeseen, and almost always destructive ….

Eleanor was a fascinating character to follow. She was bold and passionate in her love for her friends and her hatred for those she felt had wronged her, and she did everything within her power to achieve what she felt was right and just for herself and for them.

I saw how the possession of the wishes, her changing circumstances – and maybe the mysterious woman with dark eyes gaining a hold on her soul – changed her. That was very well done.

I couldn’t say that I liked her, but I always wanted to know what would happen next.

The plot also kept me turning the pages with frequent developments, some of which I expected and some of which took me by surprise.

In the later chapters there were developments that I felt were too improbable, and I felt the characters were sacrificed for the playing out of the plot. And I can’t help thinking that better editing, just a few small changes, and the book being either shorter or longer, could have helped with those problems.

I did appreciate the distinctiveness of the story, and I was engrossed right up to the sudden and surprising conclusion.

That is why I say that ‘The Shadow in the Glass’ is an imperfect book but it was the right book at the right time.

Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)

It is lovely when you see than a book that you have seen praised, that you are sure that you will love, but that is impossible to find is being sent back into the world; and it is even lovelier when that book more than lives up to very high expectations.

This is the book that makes me say that, and it has been sent back into the world by the lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of the Dean Street Press.

The story begins as Alison Penny wakes on her fortieth birthday in the family home that she inherited. She is unmarried and quite happy with her situation. She lives with Ada, an old family retainer who has become her housekeeper, friend and companion. Ada loves Alison dearly, she is very protective of her, and treats her as a beloved daughter, without ever forgetting that Alison is her employer. It is a state of affairs that the two women are very happy with.

Alison has never married and is quite happy with the way her life has turned out. She could have married, but her protective parents disapproved of George, and she accepted that they were right to stand in his way. He sent Alison a letter every year, timed to reach her on her birthday, and over the years they came from far and wide as George travelled far and wide and rarely stayed still.

There was no letter from George on Alison’s fortieth birthday. Ada was indignant but Alison decided that she should be philosophical: she would go out, to have lunch and to see a film.

Alison’s plan’s came to nothing, because she took a walk in the park. She saw a young woman who was clearly very upset, she turned away to allow her privacy and spare her embarrassment; but when she glanced back she saw that the young woman seemed intent on throwing herself into the duck pond and she knew she had to act. She decided that the local YWCA would be sure to care for her and get her back on her feet, but she found that they had no room and so she decided that all she could do was take her home and do that job herself.

The unfortunately named Miss Victoria Plum was wonderfully grateful.

I said you were either an angel or just plain crazy. Now I think you’re both. Maybe all angels are crazy. I wouldn’t know. I never met one before.

However, once she was installed in the bed in the spare room she showed no sign of reviving, shrinking back under the covers at the slightest hint that she might be able to make progress. Ada was cynical from the start, and as days passed by Alison began to think that she might be right.

Alison turned to her two dearest friends for advice. There was Stanley, who was a single man with a lovely home, where he had things exactly as he liked and was ministered to a marvellous housekeeper who understood him perfectly. And there was Hubert, the local vicar, whose life was not nearly so well ordered, and who struggled with his relationship with his teenage son. They listened, they expressed concern, but they didn’t quite understand the problem.

When Ada broke her ankle and Alison went down with a bad case of influenza, Miss Plum rallied. She cared for them both with a great deal of concern but rather a lack of competence.

Alison was grateful, but her anxiety about the young woman and the position she found herself in continued to grow.

Today was Miss Plum’s first day downstairs. How, then, had she been aware of the sofa bed in the breakfast room? How had she been able to lay hands with such unerring precision on teapot and tea caddy, milk, sugar and biscuits? How had she known where the spare hot-water bottles were kept?

Even when Ada and Alison had both recovered it seemed that their guest had become a fixture, and so many things happened to stop even a delicate question about her plans being asked. Miss Plum had been accepted into village life, Christmas was coming, and a quite unexpected visitor appeared ….

Miss Plum had sprung the tenderest trap of all – the trap of compassion – and they were all caught in it, helpless, bewildered.

There are many things that set this book above many of its peers.

The plot was beautifully constructed, and its mixing of cosiness with something that was rather darker was wonderfully effective.

I found it very easy to understand and emphasise with all of the characters, Alison most of all, especially when she knew that what she wanted was reasonable but she also knew that expressing or acting on her feelings would not be well received. All of the characters were real fallible human beings, who I knew must have had stories before this book began and would have stories after it ended.

The village felt just as real. It wasn’t a story-book village, it felt like a real village, that maybe my grandmother might have known somebody who lived there.

The telling of the story was lovely, it had both warmth and clarity, and it was clear that the story-teller had both the understanding of everything she wrote about and the wisdom to be unobtrusive,

All of the elements worked together so well, to make a very good story that held me from the first page to the last.

 

Blindfold by Patricia Wentworth (1935)

When life has you wanting a book that is diverting and not too demanding, one of Patricia Wentworth’s stand-alone stories might be the very thing.

This one was just that for me.

The story opens in London, when a woman and a man sit on the same bench very late at night.

Flossie had just taken a new job as a parlour maid. She found herself in a house of four women, the other three being the elderly employer she would never see, the nurse who protected her fiercely, and the book who never left the basement. When Flossie had handed over the old lady’s night-time drink and was on her way back downstairs, she looked into the drawing room. Where she had previously seen a large mirror in a gilt frame she saw just the frame, and she was sure that a human face was looking out from the dark space where the mirror once was. She was terrified and she fled, vowing to never set foot in the house again.

Miles was the secretary to a wealthy American, and he had come to London to look for his employer’s young niece. Her parents had died when she was an infant, nearly twenty years earlier and the family didn’t know what had become of the child. The child had been left a fortune by an elderly relation, and so it was decided that it was time she was found. Unfortunately Miles’ luggage was in Paris, his pocket-book was stolen, the friends who he hoped would put him up were away, and so he wasn’t at all sure what he should do for the night.

Eager to talk about, Flossie told ‘Mr Miles’ all about what had happened to her. He was incredulous, but he found that he couldn’t question her sincerity or her emotional state. They talked together for some time, and then Flossie went home to the aunt who had raised her and Miles set off to untangle his problems and begin his quest.

Neither expected to meet again, but they did; because, of course, the mystery of the missing heiress and the mystery of what happened at that house were closely linked.

A new parlour maid and Miles’s friends would also be drawn into the plot.

There is a great deal of plot, with many twists and along the way, and I was captivated from the first page to the last.

The book is a little over-full, but I really can’t think I would have left out.

There is a large and diverse cast of characters, and each one has a part to play and a story of their own. I would have been happy to spend  more time with many of them; and I would have loved to know just a little more about certain stories that played out in the past or the might play out after the story in this book was over.

Patricia Wentworth had the gift of bringing characters to life, of making her readers care, quickly and efficiently; and she knew exactly which details to share to illuminate them, their lives and their world.

In this book she went right across the class spectrum, without ever hitting a wrong note.

There is much intrigue, wonderful human drama and a good dash of romance before everything is resolved.

I was held in the moment, because there was always something to hold my interest, and that is the best way to read this book. I wouldn’t advise thinking too much about the overall structure, because that reveals many coincidences, much that is highly improbable, and a criminal plot that is downright silly.

This isn’t a book to challenge my favourite Patrician Wentworth stand-alones – the courtroom drama in Silence in Court and and the romantic suspense in Kingdom Lost – but it is a wonderful entertainment and it was definitely the right book at the right time.

The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan (2019)

When I saw Elizabeth Buchan’s name on the programme of my local literary festival last summer, I recalled reading her books back in the day. It was before I moved home to Cornwall and I read most of them from the library, but I remember buying a copy of one of them for my mother and her enjoying it.

Those books were stories set in the recent past, and I stopped reading when the stories became more contemporary and more domestic.

When I read the programme I saw that there was a new novel that looked more akin to the novels I had read years ago, and that looked rather interesting, so I invested in a ticket to the event.

I was captivated by the extracts from the book that the author read, and what she said about the arc of her career was instructive. It echoed the arc of her life: and so the books had different settings and time periods when she had the freedom to travel and to research, but stayed in the present and in domestic settings when she did not.

I loved the settings and the recent times that she explored in this novel.

The story opens in Paris in the present day, with Laure, who is the curator of a small museum that she founded. The Museum of Broken Promises displays artefacts that speak of love, loss and betrayal. You might question the viability of such a museum, but the account of the exhibits themselves, and of how they were selected from the many submissions, was absolutely fascinating.

Little was known of Laure herself. She was happy living alone, she was reluctant to speak of herself, and she only really socialised when it was necessary for her museum. On those occasions she spoke so articulately that you could understand why The Museum of Broken Promises had succeeded and what made it so important.

It was natural though that potential investors and other friends were eager to know more about the woman who had created it. An eager young journalist wanted to write about the creation of the museum, Laure was persuaded to allow the girl to shadow her for a while, and she was taken aback at how much she had found out about her past

All that she had allowed to be seen was an anonymous exhibit in her museum: a framed ticket for a train from Czechoslovakia to Austria.

Laure first came to Paris in 1985, to work as an au pair. Not long after her arrival, her employers moved to Prague. The father of the family, who was a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company had been posted there. It was a time of unrest and change in what was still a communist city, and nothing in her experience had prepared her for what she would experience there.

She visited a marionette theatre with her two young charges. They were captivated by what happened there – (as was I – it was from this part of the story that I head the author read) – and it was there that Laure met a number of performers, and that she began to fell in love with Tomas, a musician and political activist.

The love affair that grew from that drew her into dissident circles, She would become aware that they were watched by shadowy figures, and that the. Her employers were concerned, and she came to realise that there were more reasons that a job in the pharmaceutical  industry for their move into the communist bloc.

Elizabeth Buchan wrote about young love quite beautifully, she told of Laure’s experiences with empathy and understanding, and the time and place were so well drawn. I could see that this novel was underpinned by reseach but that never intruded on the human story and it helped to make that story feel both distinctive and utterly real.

I understood how what happened to Laure in Prague shaped her, and how she became the woman who would create The Museum of Broken Promises.

The story moved quite naturally between the present and the past, and I found the writing in both time periods elegant, evocative and engaging.

There were some scenes set in Berlin not long after the wall fell, and I felt that they was less successful. I understood why they were necessary to the plot, I appreciated that they helped to illuminate the changes that happened in Europe between the two main time periods, but they were less engaging and less interesting than the scenes set earlier and later.

That was disappointing, but the book as a whole worked for me.

It held a distinctive story and it gave me much to think about.

Facing South by Winifred Peck (1950)

The day that the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association comes to town is always a highlight of my bookish year. Some years I have a lovely time just admiring so many beautiful books in our town hall, and some years I find gems that I know I have to take home to read. Last year I brought home this book. I have books by the author that have been reissued by Persephone Books and by the Dean Street Press in my collection, I have yet to read any of them, but as I had never heard of this one, as I loved what I read about it on the cover, I didn’t want to risk letting it go and never seeing another copy.

The story begins beautifully, with a young newly married couple, Kay and Gilly Pallin, pausing for a picnic on their way to a family conference. They are looking down at an abbey set in a beautiful valley, and that abbey is the main reason for the family gathering.

Canon Pallin, Kay’s grandfather, had found the abbey in ruins when he was a very young priest, and restoring it became his life’s work. He considered it a great achievement, more than worthy of the time and money that he had poured into it; but his pursuit of his grand ambition had consequences for his family. Few of them understood and many of them were unhappy about what they had lost in consequence.

Kay had only met his Aunt Sophy, because his mother had been estranged from her family and her father had been angry at the paid her father had caused her. When she learned that both of his parents were dead his mother’s sister had written to him. he had liked her enormously, he had loved hearing about his mother’s childhood and the relations he had never met, and it was for Sophie’s sake that he had agreed to attend and to meet the surviving members of his mother’s family.

Gilly had only met Sophy, and so her husband explained the family history and connections to her before as they sat admiring the view.

Canon Pallin had high expectations of his children, he had a ‘difficult temper and a rather Old Testament disposition’ and so Kay’s mother wasn’t the only one of them to be cut off. Mark had upset his father by becoming a conscientious objector to the First World War, and becoming a successful campaigning journalist didn’t bring him back into favour. His father hoped that Steven would follow him into the church, but Steven chose a career in medicine, becoming a doctor and developing a successful private practice. Hilda also fell out with her father over her choice of husband, though Kay, who had met her, commented that she seemed to be the kind of woman who fell out with everybody.

Only Sophy hadn’t fallen out with her father; and she had returned to help and support him after her husband and her only child were both killed in an accident. When her father became frail he was moved to a nursing home and she remained in the family home with Mrs. Cribble, who was the housekeeper and cook and who became a very good friend.

Sophy had called the family together, because she had received a very generous offer for the house but the terms of her father’s will would make the sale difficult. He was near the end of his life, but not so near that the offer wouldn’t expire first. She was anxious about the descent of her siblings, various spouses and at least half a dozen of the next generation. Mrs. Cribble reassured her that they would cope, and when Kay and Gilly arrived they did the same. Kay stayed upstairs with his aunt and Gilly, who was always happiest in a kitchen, went downstairs to help Mrs. Cribble.

When the family arrived there were much to talk about, many different opinions and old grievances were aired, before different groups went out to see what they might do to resolve the situation.

Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

It felt quite natural for Sophy to sit in the kitchen and chat with Mrs. Cribble, but her sister Hilda was horrified at the impropriety. My feelings chimed with Sophy’s but I understood why Hilda felt as she did, as she was unhappy and wanted to feel that she had some status in the world if nothing else.

The writing was intelligent, warm and engaging, it was rich with detail and the dialogue was particularly well done.

I loved that the story considered the effect on his family of the Canon’s rebuilding of the abbey rather than the rebuilding itself; and I appreciated that much more happened on the day that the family resolving the problem of the house and the will.

I loved Sophy, who was so lovely and reminded me a little of Trollope’s Mr. Harding.

I found so much to love in this book, I can’t list them all but I had to say that.

The resolution that was found at the end of the day was wonderful, casting new light on the character of Canon Pallin; and an epilogue set a few months later was a nice way to catch up my favourites – Gilly and Kay, Sophy and Mrs. Cribble – to see how their lives had changed and to hear news of others.

It won’t be long before I pick up another of Winifred Peck’s novels – and I couldn’t resist ordering another, that was likened to Trollope on the dust jacket of this one.

The Glass House by Eve Chase (2020)

Eve Chase has a gift for spinning stories, bringing characters to life, and making glorious houses live and breathe.

This book begins with a report of the discovery of a body deep in a forest, and then comes the house.

Behind a tall rusting gate, Foxcote manor erupts from the undergrowth, as if a geological heave has lifted it from the woodland floor. A wrecked beauty, the old house’s mullioned windows blink drunkenly, in the stippled evening sunlight. Colossal trees overhang a sweep of red-tiled roof that sags in the middle, like a snapped spine, so the chimney’s tilt at odd angles. Ivy suckers up the timber and brick-gabled facade, dense, bristling, alive with dozens of tiny darting birds, a billowing veil of bees …

That house is the focus of three entwined narratives, two from the past and one from the presents, telling a story of mothers and daughters, of love and loss, and of history and its consequences.

Rita came to Foxcote, that wonderful country home, as the nanny of two children whose family who had just suffered a terrible trauma. She wasn’t entirely happy about that, as becoming a nanny to a wealthy family in London had been her dream job, but she loved her charges and she know that they needed her, more than every now that their mother was mentally frail.

She was a city girl but she came to love the country.

The father of the family had to stay in London, his request that she send him regular reports made her uncomfortable, and what was happening to his wife and children – especially when one particular person visited – gave her serious cause for conccern.

Another voice from the past filled out the story, speaking of things that Sylvie didn’t see or know.

Years later, Sylvie was making plans to leave her husband. They were calling it a trial separation, but she knew that they had drifted apart and that it was time for a permanent change.

She felt positive about the future, but her plans had to be put on hold when a terrible accident left her usually bright and active mother in a comma. Her daughter’s reaction to that was not what she expected, Sylvie suspected that something was very wrong, because that had always been very close and they always talked about anything and everything.

I was captivated by both stories, past and present. Because the characters and relationships were so beautifully drawn that they lived and breathed, that they drew me in and made me care and want to know what would happen. Because the writing was so rich and evocative that the I felt that I really knew the times and places that the story visited.

At first there was nothing to indicate what would tie the stories together, but hints and facts were dropped in a way that was quite perfectly judged, until I knew and understood everything.

I wish that I could stop there, but I can’t.

The early chapters were perfect, but as time went on I worried that two serious incidents in the story set in the past would be difficult to resolve. The plot, beautifully constructed though it was, took the lustre from the characters and the relationships. They needed space to shine, but they were weighed down and stretched too far by an excess of story.

I was able to keep faith for most of the book, but I found that in the later chapters I couldn’t help feeling that the author spoilt her own story by trying to account for everything and everyone, and by tying the story set it the past and the story set in the present together much, much too tightly.

That is why, though I found much to love in this book, though it never lost its hold on me, I couldn’t love it as much as I hoped I would, or as much as I loved Eve Chase’s last book.

I hope that this wasn’t a sign that the author isn’t running out of ideas for this type or book, that she isn’t trapped in a niche or under pressure to come up with new ideas to quickly. I hope that this is just a mis-step.

Maybe it was the literary equivalent of an artist who doesn’t know when to put her brush down. I say that because I love the pictures that this book painted, but I need to stand back and not look too closely at some of the details.

Agatha’s Husband by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1852)

I have wanted to read one of Mrs Craik’s novels ever since I read her Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall, a wonderful travelogue that made me like her enormously. It has taken quite some time, because all of her books – except one or maybe two that are available print-on-demand – are long out of print and I have never come across a single one of them.

My 100 Years of Books project led me to this one, when I was looking for something interesting to fill one of the trickiest early years. It was a title I had never seen mentioned, but I liked the sound of it, I liked the look at it, and when I saw that the Project Gutenberg edition had illustrations by Walter Crane I knew that I had started reading for a reason.

The story opens when Agatha is a wealthy young woman who has good friends but no family. Her guardian is a friend of her late father, a military man who is posted overseas, and Agatha has made an arrangement whereby she rents a suite of room from a friendly family. It is an arrangement that suits her very well, because she is always welcome to be part of family life but the family understands that sometimes she wishes to spend time alone or with her friends in her own space.

The ladies in Agatha’s social circle are eager to find her a husband, but Agatha appears uninterested; playing with her kitten while the mull over the possibilities, and insisting that she loves her independence and that she really is in no hurry to change things.

I warmed to Agatha immediately, loving that she was warm, open, impulsive, articulate and self-aware. At the age of nineteen she was a child in some ways and an adult in others.

She meant what she said.  She did enjoy her independence, but she knew that she didn’t want to be alone forever and that she didn’t want to live with the restrictions that she knew society placed on single women forever either. She didn’t tell them that because she wanted to wait for the right man, the man that she could be happy with for the rest of her life; and she didn’t think those ladies would be at all helpful in finding him.

Never any but fools have ever made love to me! Oh, if an honest, noble man did but love me, and I could marry, and get out of this friendless desolation, this contemptible, scheming, match-making set, where I and my feelings are talked of, speculated on, bandied about from house to house. It is horrible—horrible! But I’ll not cry! No!

When her guardian came home to visit he was concerned that Agatha was smitten with him. She wasn’t at all, but she was captivated by his younger brother, who she had met for the first time as he had lived with his uncle in America from a very young age. Her feelings were reciprocated, a proposal was made and accepted, and as Agatha had no family they agreed to have a quiet wedding in London.

All of this happened in the first few chapters, and it was clear that this was not to be a story of finding a husband but a story of adapting to married life.

The wedding itself raised several questions:

  • Why did none of the bridegroom’s family, who all sent warm and welcoming letters to the bride, travel to town for the ceremony?
  • Why was Agatha’s guardian – who was also the bridegroom’s brother – terribly late and in a dreadful temper?
  • And who was Anne Valery? Agatha learned that she was no relation, and yet she was spoken of as if she was the most important and most beloved member of the family?

All of those questions would be answered in the story that played out when the newlyweds went to stay with the family while they looked for a home of their own in the same part of the world.

Agatha’s new father-in-law , the local squire, was a widower, and the father of two sons and four daughters. He welcomed her warmly, and considered himself to have been blessed with a fifth daughter. She loved that!

Her four new sisters were just as happy to meet her. One was a married woman who lived in the nearest town; one was a quiet bookish girl who was happy to stay at home; one was vivacious and eager to be the family’s next bride; and one was an invalid, frail but appreciative of the great care that her family gave her. They were a lovely group – diverse but united!

Agatha was anxious about Anne Valery, fearing a rival, but when they met she found that she was an older lady and she quickly came to understand why her in-laws thought so much of her and involved her so much in their family life; though she didn’t understand how that had come to be and didn’t see a way to find out.

The newlyweds were very much in love and very happy – until the time came to establish their own home. Agatha found a lovely house but her husband refused to consider it as it was beyond his means. He absolutely refused to use her fortune. Agatha was bitterly disappointed, she didn’t understand why her husband wasn’t even prepared to discuss the matter, and then he left in the middle of the night, called away on urgent business.

Agatha felt terribly alone, because this was one thing she couldn’t talk about with her in-laws.

That was just the beginning a grand drama, that would draw in every character, answer all of those questions that the wedding and subsequent events had raised, and bring old family secrets to light ….

Mrs. Craik wrote well, and she was very good at characters and relationships; and her portrayal of Agatha’s situation before her marriage, her entry into her new family and the start of her marriage were particularly well done.

I was held by Agatha’s side and I always empathised with her.

BUT though the plot was well constructed, it was poorly paced, the ending was abrupt, there were moments that were too sentimental or too melodramatic; and the heroine was allowed to dominate in situations where she really shouldn’t have.

I am inclined to agree with George Eliot, who described the author as:

…. a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture ….

I will happily reread her Cornish travelogue, but as there are so many more books in the world now that there were in 1852 I am in no hurry to seek out more of her novels.

The Lake House by Kate Morton (2015)

I have found that living in the world as it is now, and having to work to rebuild history and up with work in the present, requires a particular kind of book: a book that is absorbing and transporting and undemanding. I have picked up and put down a number of very good books that I really want to return to when things have settled down a little, but this was the book that held me.

It is the book that I chose from a line of books by the author the last time I visited our local Oxfam shop, remembering that I had loved the author’s most recent book, and thinking, as I always do when I pick up a big book set if the past, of my paternal grandmother, who loved this kind of book and who I am sure would have loved this one.

It weaves together the stories of thee children separated from their parents in different ways and at different times. One went missing from his family home; one was found by the police, alone and distressed in her home; and one had been given up for adoption and hoped to find out more about her history and the reasons why.

The central story opens in 1933, at Loeanneth, a Cornish manor house set beside a lake. There was a party on a summer night, and the next morning eleven-month old Theo Edevane, the son and heir born some years after his three sisters, had vanished without a trace. The police investigated but they could find nothing and the family abandoned their lakeside home.

In London, in 2013, Detective Sadie Sparrow worked on the investigation that followed the discovery of an abandoned child. There was no indication of what her mother had left or of what might have happened to her, but after talking to the child’s grandmother Sadie formed views that contradicted the conclusions of her superior officers when they closed the case. She wouldn’t let the matter rest, and she was strongly advised to distance herself for a while, to take a holiday until the dust settled.

She went to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather, who had retired to Cornwall after her grandmother’s death; and it was when she was walking her grandfather’s dogs that she discovered an empty manor house on a neglected estate by a lake. She asks questions and is told of events that happened seven decades earlier and of the mystery that was still unsolved. That mystery intrigued her and trying to find a solution became a way to fill her days, a way to prove to herself that she was a capable detective and, maybe, a way to prove that to her police colleagues.

She found that a young policeman who had worked on the case was still living locally; and she knew that one of the three sisters – Alice Edevane – was a successful author of psychological mysteries ….

The story moved backward and forwards in time in a way that felt natural and right. I always knew exactly where and when I was; I always had ideas about how the story as a whole might come together  – sometimes right and sometimes wrong and I found something to hold my interest in every strand of the story.

It explored the stories of different members of the Everdene family, before and after the disappearance that re-shaped all of their lives. It followed as she made investigations, as she thought about and dealt with the repercusssions of the case that had led her in to trouble, and wonders how she should answer a letter from the child she had given up at birth fifteeen years earlier.

The writing was lovely, the plot was cleverly spun, and people and places were beautifully evoked, with enough detail to allow them to live and enough space to allow them to breathe.

I found much to love, this definitely was the right book at the right time, but I was a little disappointed with the pacing.

The early chapters were absorbing, but there was a time in the middle of the book when the story sagged just a little, and then the ending seemed rushed and contrived. I can’t say that it was wrong –  it felt right emotionally – but the characters needed time and space to make it work.

There are books of the kind where you just want to find the solution to the mystery and then leave, but this is not that kind of book. I was invested in the character and their stories and I wanted to see more of how they shared the news of what was discovered and how they came to terms with it all.

That was disappointing, but I loved my journey through this book and I was sorry that I had to leave.