“One house, one family and a lifetime of secrets” it says on the front cover of Larkswood, a new novel from Valerie Mendes set in England in 1896 and 1939. The house is Larkswood House, a mansion in the Hampshire countryside, the family are the Hamiltons (three generations) and the secrets…well, obviously I’m not going to tell you those, but will leave you to discover them for yourself if you choose to read this book.
In 1939, Louisa Hamilton is in London for the Season with her parents and sister, Milly. Louisa has just turned seventeen and is preparing for her ‘coming out’, but she can’t help thinking that it’s all very silly and boring; she would much rather be at home reading Jane Austen. The day after she attends her first ball, she becomes ill with glandular fever and is sent to Larkswood, her grandfather’s house, to recuperate.
Edward Hamilton, Louisa’s grandfather, has just returned home from India where he has lived for the last forty-two years, haunted by the memory of the tragic events of the summer of 1896. As Louisa regains her strength at Larkswood and starts to form a bond with Edward, she begins to uncover the truth about what happened all those years earlier. Louisa’s story, unfolding in the months leading up to the beginning of the Second World War, alternates with the story of Edward and his two sisters, Cynthia and Harriet.
It was the striking front cover that first drew me to this book, so I was pleased to find that the story inside was enjoyable too. I guessed most of the novel’s big secrets before the truth was revealed, but that wasn’t really a problem and the fun was in wondering when Louisa would find out and what she would do with the knowledge. I did find some of the language used in the dialogue quite irritating – the working class characters seemed to finish almost every sentence with “that’s for certain sure” and generally sounded a bit stupid, I thought – but not so irritating that it spoiled the rest of the novel for me. The plot was entertaining enough that I could enjoy the book while still being aware of its flaws.
Away from the novel’s central storyline, I also enjoyed reading the letters sent to Louisa by her sister Millicent (or Silly Milly, as Louisa calls her) who is still in London spending her days in a whirlwind of parties and dances. Milly’s letters are fun to read but also give some insights into the war preparations in London as they appear to a shallow, self-absorbed young woman who doesn’t want the good times to end. I was reminded here of The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn – a different war and a very different plot, but a similar setting and atmosphere.
I understand that Valerie Mendes has written several books for young adults, but this is her first historical novel for adults. I’ll be hoping for more!