I have always found the concept of time-travel fascinating – and equally fascinating are the number of ways in which various authors choose to approach the subject when writing time-travel fiction. The Phantom Tree is one of many dual time period time-slip novels I have read over the last few years, but I found it refreshingly different in that it deals not with the usual idea of a modern day character going back in time but a woman from the past coming forward to the present time.
The name of our time traveller is Alison Bannister (or Banastre, as she was known in her previous life) and she has been trapped in the 21st century for ten years, unable to find a way to get back. We first meet Alison walking through the streets of Marlborough one day just before Christmas. Stopping to look through the window of an art gallery, she is surprised to see a painting of a woman she once knew. Investigating further, she learns that this is apparently a newly discovered portrait of Anne Boleyn – but she’s sure it isn’t; it’s Mary Seymour, who lived with Alison at Wolf Hall in the 1500s. To complicate things further, the historian hoping to build his career around the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s portrait is Adam Hewer, Alison’s ex-boyfriend. Without telling him the truth about her journey through time, how can she convince him that he’s wrong?
The historical sections of the novel are written mainly from Mary Seymour’s perspective. Unlike Alison, who is fictional, Mary is a real historical figure – but one whose story has been lost in the mists of time. Mary is the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death. Katherine dies shortly after giving birth and Thomas is executed a year later, leaving Mary an orphan in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk. Mary disappears from historical records in 1550, but Nicola Cornick suggests that she was sent to live with her Seymour cousins at Wolf Hall. This allows plenty of scope to create a storyline for Mary which is both imaginary and historically plausible.
Of the two time periods, I found the sections set in the past more interesting – in particular, I enjoyed the supernatural elements of Mary’s story. Almost from the moment she arrives at Wolf Hall rumours begin to circulate that she is a witch, especially after she has a vision which seems to come true. She also has a telepathic connection with a secret friend called Darrell and this reminded me instantly of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, (which may have been intentional, as Darrell’s nickname for Mary is ‘Cat’).
The present day story was enjoyable too, though. I couldn’t help thinking that Alison had adapted remarkably quickly to modern life, which wasn’t at all convincing, but otherwise I was kept entertained by her attempts to find a gateway back to her own time and to decipher a set of clues sent by Mary through the centuries.
The Phantom Tree does require disbelief to be suspended on many occasions, which I know is not something that appeals to all readers, but I think anyone who likes reading time-slip novels by authors like Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Erskine should find plenty to enjoy here. I will now be looking out for Nicola Cornick’s previous book, House of Shadows!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.