The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second novel. Her first, The Witchfinder’s Sister, was a fascinating historical novel set during the Manningtree witch trials of 1645; this new book sounded very different, but I still wanted to give it a try.
The novel opens in 1918, with Ivy Boscawen trying to come to terms with the death of her son, Tim, shot dead in the trenches of the Western Front. Ivy is desperate to know exactly what happened to Tim, but after speaking to some of his fellow soldiers what she discovers about her son’s death makes her feel even more distressed. Worse still, the loss of Tim triggers memories of another boy, William Tremain, who died thirty years earlier in a fire at the Great House in Polneath, Cornwall. Ivy, whose father was the Polneath doctor at the time, has been haunted by William’s tragic death ever since and has never been able to shake off her feelings of guilt about her actions in the aftermath of the fire.
With Ivy as the narrator, the novel moves back and forth in time between 1918 and 1888, gradually shedding light on the mysteries surrounding both deaths. Family secrets are uncovered, wills are read, inquests are held, clandestine meetings take place and identities are revealed – yet this is not really the exciting, suspenseful Gothic novel I had been hoping for. It moves along at a very slow pace and although I was enjoying it enough to want to read on to the end, I never felt fully engaged with either the plot or the characters.
There is an advantage to the slow pace, however, which is that it gives the reader a chance to try to solve some of the mysteries and guess some of the secrets before Ivy does. It’s a complex story, with lots of pieces that only begin to fall into place towards the end and there were points where I felt confused, particularly as the two timelines often seem to merge together. A chapter heading may indicate that we are in 1918, but after a few paragraphs Ivy starts to remember the events of 1888 again and it’s not always clear which period we are reading about. Also, the ‘key in the lock’ of the title turns out to be several keys to several locks in several doors and I struggled to keep track of the significance of them all.
I did like the atmosphere Beth Underdown creates and the attention to period detail; I never felt that the language or attitudes were too modern. She also writes very convincingly about Ivy’s grief for her lost son, her sense of guilt over what happened at the Great House, and the terrible misunderstandings and assumptions that have persisted for thirty years. It’s a very sad story, where lives are taken too early, acts of kindness go unappreciated until it’s almost too late and wicked deeds go unpunished for too long. An interesting read, but with a tighter focus I think it could have been a much better book.
Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.
This is book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.