A Mystery in Cornwall

The Lake House     Kate Morton     (2015)


Really, nothing’s new in the fiction game. A few basic plots (the journey, the quest, the betrayal, the discovery) pretty much cover it, plus characters, settings, and episodes from one century or another. A writer of fiction assembles these pieces, using language as the glue and the paint. The artistry lies in wise choices of plot and characters and settings and episodes and language. Chaucer knew this in the 14th century when he reworked old stories and stock types into the magic of The Canterbury Tales, giving life to his pilgrim characters with a most sophisticated form of English. I’m not talking about plagiarism here but rather careful selection and artful re-crafting.

In The Lake House, Kate Morton selects

  • a little of the actual Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1932
  • a smidgen of the character of author Agatha Christie
  • pointers from 1930s Golden Age British mysteries
  • a bit of the fictional 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1950s Chronicles of Narnia
  • a distillation of several contemporary fictional female British detectives.

Morton sets all these pieces in the fabulous landscapes of Cornwall and populates her family-saga-cum-mystery with deftly drawn individuals. The passages that describe the natural world in Cornwall and that build the personalities of the protagonists are particularly strong. The novel toggles back and forth between 1933 and 2003, with occasional forays into World War II and the years just before World War I. The time switching can become dizzying, but it allows for plenty of family backstory and for the integration of two distinct plots.

The book is long—at 492 pages, perhaps overly long—and complex. In 1933, during an elaborate lawn party on Midsummer Eve at an estate called Loeanneth in Cornwall, the infant son of wealthy Anthony and Eleanor Edevane, Theo, disappears from his nursery in the night. The boy is never found, either alive or dead, and the grieving family moves to London, abandoning the estate. Skipping ahead to London in 2003, police detective Sadie Sparrow is put on an enforced leave for leaking information about an unrelated case of a mother apparently deserting her young daughter. Sadie decamps to her grandfather’s retirement cottage in (wait for it) Cornwall, where she becomes intrigued by the 70-year-old cold case of Theo Edevane. A key witness from that night in 1933 is Alice Edevane, older sister of Theo, who, at age 86, is the doyenne of the police procedural novel in 2003 London.

Morton throws in innumerable flashbacks, including Sadie’s teenage rebellions, Anthony’s experiences in World War I, Eleanor’s upbringing, the genesis of Alice’s writing career, and even the background of Peter, personal assistant to the aged Alice. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, several romances are included, as well as many, many secrets. The tendency of the Edevanes to keep secrets allows for multiple red herrings in the mystery plotting. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guessed about 75% of the secrets. Still, the last fifty pages of The Lake House surprised me, in a good way. I especially relished the final chapter, which takes the surviving characters ahead to the year 2004, giving a brief picture of how they all have adapted to the revelations of the year 2003.

Kate Morton is an Australian writing phenomenon and internationally bestselling novelist, now living in London. I’ve just discovered her work, and I plan to check out more of it.

Kids in 1930s Australia

The Strays     Emily Bitto     (2014/2017)


This mesmerizing novel from Emily Bitto, first published in Australia in 2014, is now available in the United States. Set in Melbourne, The Strays is the first-person narrative of Lily, who finds a fast friend in Eva when they meet as children in third grade. It’s 1930, and the worldwide Great Depression has led to downward economic mobility for Lily’s family. She’s a friendless only child of conventional parents, so she jumps at the chance to become one of “the strays” taken in by Eva’s parents, Evan and Helena Trentham.

Lily’s parents don’t have a clue what they are exposing their daughter to when they allow Lily to spend increasing amounts of time with Eva and her two sisters. The Trentham household is unusual, to put it mildly. Evan Trentham is a modernist painter in a society that prizes more traditional art. He breaks with convention in other ways, too, for example by walking around the house nude and by squatting to defecate on the patio in full view of his family and Lily. Helena is a frustrated artist whose inherited wealth keeps the Trenthams afloat. Evan and Helena are terrible parents, by any standards, seldom attending to the basic needs of their three daughters. The young girls have to scrounge in the kitchen to find minimal food to eat, but they have ready access to alcohol and marijuana.

Yet Lily is entranced by the Trenthams, their huge old house, and their overgrown gardens. She’s especially besotted with Eva, in what she calls “that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” (55) Novelist Bitto’s descriptions of the girls’ closeness are striking: “I felt giddy as we walked arm in arm to the train station, playing our usual game, involving one of us attempting to walk in time with the other, while the other tried to avoid being walked in time with. This led to such a strange, hopping, arrhythmic gait that we always ended up laughing hysterically, pulling on each other for support and lurching all over the pavement. Some of the other girls in our class aimed disdaining glances at us as they passed on their way to the station, but this pleased us.” (81)

Alas, the situation gets out of hand when Evan and Helena invite several young modernist artists to move in with them, creating a kind of commune. The sexual liaisons of the artists are not described in detail, because we’re hearing the story from Lily, who is a young innocent. “There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumors of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.” (102) Several shocking crises ensue, and Lily leaves the Trentham household permanently at the age of fifteen.

The Strays is set up in four sections, with the first and last sections set in 1985 and the middle two sections set in the 1930s, as Lily’s memoir, after a fashion. The language in these two middle sections is particularly rich in imagery: “The light in the foggy kitchen window was a deep blue. The jagged leaves of geranium pressed against the glass were coral, and we were staring out into deep water from some sunken domestic bathysphere.” (155)

I have a couple of very minor complaints about this novel. The ages of the characters don’t quite square with the timeframes (1930s and 1985). And the transitions in the last section of the book are somewhat ragged, as Lily goes back and forth in time, filling us in on the years between her childhood and her late middle age. But this piercingly moving story about loneliness and friendship and the choices we make is a winner.

For other historical novels set in Australia, try The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman and The Golden Age by Joan London.


Novels about Paintings, Part 2

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos     Dominic Smith     (2016)

As I read this novel, I assumed that the title painting, the last painting of Sara de Vos, was At the Edge of a Wood. The creation of this fictional work of art is placed in 1636, as de Vos is grieving the death of her only child, a daughter, from the plague. The painting shows a dark-haired girl in the foreground, barefoot in the snow, watching a group of skaters on the frozen river beyond. It’s dusk in winter in the Netherlands, so the quality of light is otherworldly.

According to novelist Dominic Smith’s complex story, At the Edge of a Wood has been owned by the de Groot family for more than three hundred years, and it’s considered by some to have caused bad luck for the owners. Marty de Groot, the owner we meet in Manhattan in 1957, certainly hasn’t suffered financially, but Marty’s law career is stalled, and he and his wife are unable to have children.

Also in 1957 but in Brooklyn, the novelist introduces us to Ellie Shipley, an Australian graduate student in art history at Columbia University. She’s trying to finish her PhD dissertation about female painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and she does art restoration work to support herself. Along comes a commission, not to restore but to copy a painting by (wait for it) a female painter of the Dutch Golden Age: At the Edge of a Wood. Ellie wades in, not so much for the money as for the technical and artistic challenge of reproducing a stunning painting. This is, of course, forgery.

Forty-odd years later, in 2000, Ellie is an esteemed art historian and curator in Sydney, Australia. As she’s gathering paintings on loan from around the world for an exhibit, it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and the copy she painted will be arriving in Sydney. The forgery will be revealed, and since Ellie is the only person who could have painted the copy, she sees her comfortable life crumbling before her.  

The book moves back and forth effortlessly among three settings:  The Netherlands 1636-1649 (dark, burgher-ruled); New York, 1957-1958 (shiny, jazz-filled); and Sydney, 2000 (sunny, cosmopolitan). The characters of Sara de Vos, Marty de Groot, and Ellie Shipley—all drawn convincingly—move through these settings and through their interconnected lives.  

Novelist Smith does an excellent job of rendering visual art in words, and not only in the passages where he describes paintings. References to the light in a scene come in frequently. For example, here is Ellie on the subway in New York City: “She always has the sensation of being swallowed by the roaring dark of the first tunnel, her ears popping and the sudden appearance of her reflection on the blackened windowpane like some hangdog daguerreotype from another century.“ (208) And here is Marty, in his office at night after committing a terrible deed: “He’s never been up here at night and there’s a sensation of being fortified behind glass, of something solid between him and the mercantile canyons of the city. The office buildings are phosphorescent through the darkness, effulgent with a smoky light that reminds him of dry ice.” (249).

By the end of the novel, you’ll know what the last painting of Sara de Vos actually was. I’ll leave you with this summation of the plot: “You carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like graveside vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again.” (262)

An Australian Lighthouse

The Light Between Oceans     ML Stedman     (2012)

I rejected this novel for several years, put off by the gloomy plot summary on the dust jacket. But I’m trying to review more books by authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. ML Stedman, the London-based author of The Light Between Oceans, was born and raised in Western Australia, so the book seemed to fill this slot nicely.

The plot, briefly: In the 1920s, a lighthouse keeper and his wife, on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, find a dead man and a live infant in a boat that washes ashore. Desperate for a child of her own, the wife insists that they keep the baby girl rather than report the shipwreck. The husband reluctantly agrees. The complicated consequences of this decision play out over the following years, on the island and in the town on the mainland, a hundred miles away by sea.

The Light Between Oceans teeters right on the precipice of melodrama. By “melodrama” I mean writing that relies on overwrought emotions, ridiculous coincidences, and cardboard characters. Emotions do flow over the top at times, as the lighthouse keeper struggles with his code of conduct and as battles for custody of the baby escalate. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler for you to know that there are custody battles. As soon as the baby arrives, at the beginning of the book, the reader senses that trouble looms.)

There are definitely questionable coincidences in The Light Between Oceans, including the arrival of the boat baby right after the wife has suffered a stillbirth, plus several subsequent chance encounters that stretch credibility. I also questioned the logic of some of the narrative. For example, the supposed grandparents of the baby wait eighteen months to see her. I think it more likely that they or other relatives would have gone out to the island now and then, on the supply boat that made the trip four times a year. The sea passage was rough, but it was a day’s journey, hardly much for Australians accustomed to vast distances between their cities. And the lighthouse couple could have adopted a child. The orphanages of Australia were full, so it doesn’t seem reasonable that they would have been denied adoption because of their location. They could also have easily received a stack of newspapers on the supply boat from the mainland. Ah, but newspapers might have changed their decision about the baby and destroyed the premise of the story.

What saves The Light Between Oceans, then, from tipping totally into melodrama? Australia and the Australians. Stedman’s descriptions of Janus Rock (the lighthouse island) and Point Partageuse (the mainland town), both fictional, are mesmerizing. The sub-tropical flora and fauna form a backdrop to the story: jacaranda and karri trees, animals like skinks and quokkas. The details of lighthouse maintenance in the days before automation are fascinating. I can see the brilliant light shining out across the waters and feel the sharp winds of this isolated spot where the Great Southern (Pacific) Ocean and the Indian Ocean come together, often violently. I get tugged into the loneliness as well as the freedom of this wild, gorgeous place on earth.

And the Australians, still staggering from the devastating casualties of World War I, come alive in Stedman’s writing. In fact, World War I accounts for much of the emotion in the book. The lighthouse keeper, a decorated veteran of the Western Front, sustained no major physical injuries but has horrific memories and survivor’s guilt. He takes the lighthouse job, even though he’s a university-educated engineer, to get away from civilization and calm his mind. The actions of several other characters are also motivated by after-effects of the war, such as grief at the loss of sons and animosity toward citizens with German surnames.

The extreme examinations of conscience and weighing of alternatives that the characters go through could be seen as melodramatic, but I take these as reflecting the historical period of the novel. Most people in the 1920s adhered at least externally to the religious dictates of the culture, and as a result, some were troubled by over-zealous contemplation of their failings. Add in the effects of PTSD (called “shell shock” during World War I), and you’ve got a lot of authentic anguish.

In the final chapter, which serves as a kind of epilogue, Stedman spins her story out to the year 1950, taking the characters past another world war and showing the long-term consequences of their decisions back in the 1920s. I enjoyed this wrap-up, but others may find it excessive, in the category of “too much information.”

My final verdict on The Light Between Oceans: it’s worth reading. If, like me, you get attached to fictional characters, it may bring you to tears. 

Postscript: I have not seen the movie version of The Light Between Oceans. It got mixed reviews.

An Australian Find

The Golden Age     Joan London     (2014)

I have woefully neglected Australian fiction. Before I happened on The Golden Age, the last Australian novel I’d read was Colleen McCullough’s 1977 melodramatic saga The Thorn Birds, which shouldn’t even count, because it was made into a television mini-series.

Joan London’s poignant novel The Golden Age gains its power from insightful characterizations and an unusual setting. In 1953, as polio ravages the lives of children and young adults around the world, two afflicted adolescents (Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs) meet in a polio rehabilitation center in Perth, Western Australia.

The repurposed building retains the name it had when it was a pub: The Golden Age. The author tells us in a special note that this was the name of an actual children’s polio convalescent home in the 1950s. For me, The Golden Age conjures up many appropriate images. The young patients are like ancient, wise souls—in their “golden years”—because of the life-threatening illness that they’ve survived. Frank and Elsa have a golden opportunity for friendship and love, having been placed in this rehabilitation center even though they’re both older than the other residents. The light in Perth—known for its sunny climate—has a gilded quality that London renders strikingly in descriptive passages.

London anchors her story in real-life events of the period, including the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth II to Perth in 1954. The narrative also includes powerful flashbacks to Budapest during World War II, where Frank and his parents barely survived the Holocaust before emigrating as refugees to Australia in 1947.

But the interior lives of Frank and Elsa, of their parents, and of the head nurse at The Golden Age are the heart of the novel. Here is Frank’s father, Meyer, describing his life as a refugee:

“It was like this. Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife. Only time would tell if one day he would reach across and take her hand . . .” (92)

The characters in Frank and Elsa’s love story and in the interconnected sub-plots are genuine, flawed, struggling people. The thirteen-year-old Frank’s thoughts as he falls in love with Elsa build through the novel and ring true. He decides that he is a poet, and this vocation does not seem incongruous for him. He and Elsa scandalize their elders because of their youth, but, hey, Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen, and Romeo was probably not much older.

On a practical note, the Australian variants of English are not too intrusive for an American reader. I did look up “brumbies” (free-roaming feral horses), “ute” (utility vehicle), “chooks” (chickens), and “dunny” (outhouse), but context supplied enough meaning even in these cases. At first I was irritated by London’s frequent use of sentence fragments, which give a jerky, rough feel to some of her paragraphs. A few chapters in, however, I began to see this style as perhaps reflecting the erratic, lurching gait of the recovering polio patients, who are portrayed tenderly but with no mawkishness. Or perhaps the fragments express the tentativeness of many of the characters—those who don’t know what to say to polio patients, those who are refugees in a foreign land, those who have been hurt by love.

The Golden Age won several awards in Australia, including The Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. It deserves more international attention.