At the risk of sounding like a Jasper Fforde novel, this is a book in which Something Awful Happened in the Long Ago, and it’s this concealed mystery around which the plot revolves. Just as a warning: I’ve put spoilers down at the end, though not many and somewhat cryptic.
The introductory scene in the book gives some hints as to what this secret might be: Our Protagonist, Laurel, is sixteen in 1961, and the oldest of five siblings (Iris, Rose, Daphne and, breaking away from the floral/vegetative theme, a little brother Gerald). For the moment, she’s torn balancing her desire to tear away from her fuddy-duddy parents and time-consuming sisters with her love for that self-same family and the stability granted that her parents’ love for one another and the family’s love for one another. Laurel has hidden away in her ‘childhood treehouse during a game of hide-and-seek, the better to contemplate her own dreams of the future, when she sees a strange man approaching the house. Theirs is a fairly remote house—such things were easier fifty years ago in Englahd—so random strangers are a rarity. She regards him curiously…only to see her mother stab this man to death, using the familial Ceremonial Cake Knife…and there the central mystery ends until we reach the denouement of the novel.
The official “now” framing story is that of the family, now grown and gone their separate adult ways; though still close, the children don’t see each other more than once every few weeks or months, their father has passed away after fifty years and their mother is in an assisted living facility, in failing health herself. Laurel, now herself in her mid-sixties, has never thought to ask her mother about not only that strange man beyond what Dorothy and Stephen were willing to tell her at the time, but also simply more about their lives prior to meeting one another. How many children ever do? It is the reminder of her own mortality in the shape of her mother’s approaching death which prompts Laurel to delve deeper into her mother’s past. At first it is only a matter of assembling a “book of memories” to prompt her mother’s failing memory that inspires Laurel, but some odd responses—fear or surprise where there should only be pleasant reminiscence…and occasionally the reverse—prompt her to delve deeper.
Through a combination of vague suggestions from her mother, gradually sinking deeper into the gentle senility of extreme old age, and on Laurel’s own part a fair bit of organized historical research at The British Library and other lesser venues and a few interviews with survivors who knew her mother in the early ’40s, Laurel begins to piece things together. The intruder in 1961 was one Henry Jenkins, once a Famous Author, but now a near-vagrant having fallen to pieces after his wife’s death in one of the many bombings during the Blitz. But why has he come to Laurel’s mother, Dorothy, and perhaps more importantly, both to Laurel and to the readers, why did the seemingly mild-mannered homebody Dorothy Nicholson stab this stranger? The readers, being party to the “then” chapters, find all this out as Laurel uncovers the dusty past, of course; in the end, Laurel’s learned more than she ever really wanted to know about her mother’s past, though not the whole truth.
“In the Blitz” begins her mother’s story, or rather middles, as so many good novels about twentieth-century Britain do; Dorothy’s family has been killed in the bombings, leaving Dorothy, a girl in her late teens, on her own to support herself with very little experience or education. From thence continues a story of family secrets, personal secrets, spousal abuse, unreliable narrators, and double crossing, ending with a conveniently timed bomb, killing the girl who (‘fess up, you’ll agree with me!) the girl who deserves to die does die, and the girl who deserves love and life survives…but with a slight change in just who became whom.
Then-and-now stories’ inherent need to flip back and forth between the two portions of the novel may leave some readers a bit cold, for the very simple reason that authors are essentially trying to write two separate novels, combined into one. In the hands of a skilled author, such as Kate Morton, the interwoven plot(s) will at least…well…interweave plausibly, but I always end up with the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve just read three-quarters each of two different novels, bunged up together. In this case, I would have liked to learn more about the years intervening between the murder in 1961 and the mother’s death in 2011, more about the childhood of Dorothy and Vivien, and not to mention more about the peripheral characters such as the nanny Katy and the erstwhile beau Jimmy; what were their lives before and after intersecting with the Dolly/Vivien morass?
It doesn’t help that there’s a possible mental illness subplot that wasn’t terribly well developed; without that, Dolly’s reasons for blackmailing Vivien don’t seem quite so plausible, though had she lived, we might have found out as much about the true Dolly as we did about the woman masquerading in her place all those years.
As with many of my previous reviews, I feel there should be a disclaimer: I read this in less than 24 hours, and finished it willingly, enjoying it for the most part. Editors and librarians just like picking books apart to analyze them…This is definitely a book to read twice, the before-the-denouement and the after-the-denouement reads; as with Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost, there are enough unreliable narrators and plot twists to make the book mean one thing before you know and one after. Though perhaps not so complexly.
The Major Plot Twist actually does make sense in the end: neither Vivien or Dolly had many people who knew them closely enough to care enough about where they’d gone to track them down in the event they vanished, especially during the turmoil of the Blitz. Staying out of the way of their acquaintances might be more of an issue, though “Mum” took care of that neatly enough by slipping off to the contentedly bucolic life on a smallholding, tied up in her family.