The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

There are many events taking place in the book blogging calendar this month and AusReading Month hosted by Brona’s Books is one of them. I have a few books by Australian authors waiting to be read, but I decided to read one that has been waiting a long time: Kate Morton’s 2012 novel, The Secret Keeper. I’ve previously read three books by Morton and had mixed experiences with them; I loved The Forgotten Garden but was slightly disappointed in both The Distant Hours and The Clockmaker’s Daughter, so wasn’t sure whether I wanted to bother with this one. I’m pleased I did, because I enjoyed it much more than I expected to.

Like Morton’s other books, The Secret Keeper is set in multiple time periods. It begins in 1961, with sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson hiding in a wooden tree house during a family celebration. Laurel just wants some time alone to think, but this means that, from her position in the tree, she is able to see a strange man approaching the Nicolson farmhouse – and is witness to a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. We then jump forward fifty years to 2011, when the Nicolsons are gathering at their childhood home for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Laurel, now a successful actress, is still haunted by what she saw on that long ago day and decides that, with Dorothy in poor health, she needs to find out what really happened before her mother dies and takes her secrets with her.

As Laurel begins to investigate her mother’s past, the novel moves back and forth between 2011 and 1940s London where the young Dorothy is looking forward to marrying war photographer Jimmy as soon as their financial situation improves. Dorothy has also made a new friend (or so she thinks): the beautiful, wealthy Vivien, who lives in the house opposite. But when she is betrayed by Vivien, Dorothy puts together a plan of revenge – with unexpected and tragic results.

As is usually the case when I read books set in more than one time period, it was the historical one I enjoyed the most. The present day story was interesting – I enjoyed Laurel’s interactions with her younger brother Gerry, who helps her to uncover the truth about their mother – but I felt that it was effectively just a frame for the much more compelling story of Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivien. I was surprised by how absorbed I became in these parts of the novel, considering that I found Dorothy a particularly unpleasant and irritating character! I did like Jimmy, was intrigued by Vivien and loved the wartime setting, especially as things build to a climax during the London Blitz.

Somewhere in the second half of the book I started to have some suspicions regarding Laurel’s mother and the secrets she was hiding, but this came late enough that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story and I was pleased to find that my guess was correct. Of Kate Morton’s other books, I only have The House at Riverton and The Lake House left to read. Which should I read first?

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

A 19th century artist and his beautiful model; a young girl raised in India and sent to an English boarding school; a writer who takes her children to the countryside during World War II; and a 1920s biographer researching his latest work. These are just some of the characters whose stories are told in The Clockmaker’s Daughter and tied together by a present day archivist, Elodie Winslow, who is trying to make sense of it all.

At the beginning of the novel, in 2017, Elodie comes across two intriguing items in the archives of a man called James Stratton. One is an old photograph showing a woman dressed in Victorian clothing; the other is a sketchbook with a drawing of a house near the bend of a river. Elodie feels that the house looks familiar somehow…but where could she have seen it before? And who is the woman in the photograph?

To find the answers to these questions, we have to go back to the summer of 1862 when a group of young artists known as ‘the Magenta Brotherhood’ are gathering at Birchwood Manor, the home of the talented painter Edward Radcliffe. By the end of their stay, a woman has been killed, another has vanished without trace and a valuable jewel has disappeared. We know that these incidents must be linked in some way to the photograph and sketch that Elodie has found, but before we can fully understand their significance we must follow the stories of all the characters I mentioned above – and several more.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a complex novel and, I have to admit, I would have preferred it to have been a bit less complex! There were far too many different strands to the story and I struggled to keep track of what was happening and how the various characters were related to each other. New characters, often seemingly unconnected to any of the others, were still being introduced well into the second half of the book and it wasn’t always very clear how they were going to fit into the sequence of events. It all makes sense in the end, but I’m not sure it was really necessary for things to be so confusing.

Although I would have preferred a more straightforward, linear structure, I still found a lot to like about this book: there’s a supernatural element which I thought was used very effectively; I loved Birdie Bell, the eponymous clockmaker’s daughter; and I really enjoyed the last few chapters, in which we finally discover what really happened that summer in 1862. To compare it with the other two Kate Morton novels I’ve read, I thought this one was better than The Distant Hours but not as good as The Forgotten Garden. I’m not sure whether I will be reading any more of her books, although I could probably be tempted.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

After enjoying one of Kate Morton’s previous novels, The Forgotten Garden, which I read a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to reading this one until I saw that it was getting such mixed reviews. I decided I still wanted to give it a chance, but now that I’ve read it I can understand the problems other people have had with it.

The Distant Hours is narrated by Edie Burchill, whose mother Meredith was evacuated to Milderhurst Castle during World War II. Edie is fascinated by this because her favourite childhood book, The True History of the Mud Man, was written by Raymond Blythe, the owner of Milderhurst Castle. Yet for some reason her mother doesn’t like talking about what happened during the time of her evacuation or her relationship with Blythe’s three daughters, the twins Persephone (Percy) and Seraphina (Saffy) and their younger sister, Juniper.

When Edie, who works in publishing, is asked to write the introduction for a new edition of The True History of the Mud Man, she is given the opportunity to get to know the Blythe sisters who are now elderly women and are still living together at Milderhurst. As Edie begins her quest to discover what inspired Raymond Blythe’s famous story, she also starts to uncover the secrets her mother has been keeping for the last fifty years.

The story moves back and forth between Edie in the 1990s and Meredith and the Blythe sisters in the 1940s. What happened to Juniper’s fiancé who mysteriously disappeared on his way to visit her one night in 1941? What were the true origins of The Mud Man? Why have the three sisters never left Milderhurst Castle? Kate Morton keeps us wondering about the answers to these questions for hundreds of pages, revealing the truth very gradually, and although I was able to correctly guess at some of the story’s secrets, there were others that weren’t so easy to figure out.

The Distant Hours does have a lot of the things I usually love in a book: an ancient castle in the countryside, a literary mystery, lots of gothic elements. Unfortunately the setting, which could have been wonderfully atmospheric, never really came to life for me. Even the sections of the book that took place during World War II lacked the atmosphere I would have expected from a wartime setting. And so much was made of Raymond Blythe’s The True History of the Mud Man, there were times when I couldn’t help wishing Kate Morton had just written that story instead of this one!

There seems to have been a huge increase in the last few years in the number of books with dual timeframes in which a modern day character uncovers a family secret from the past, and to be honest I think I’m getting bored with books of this type in general. I’ve read a lot of them recently and this one didn’t offer anything very new or original. The main problem I had with this book though was the length. I don’t mind reading long books if the story is compelling enough to keep me interested, but the plot was too slow and meandering and I really think this book could easily have been at least 100 pages shorter. There were too many sections that felt repetitive and too many chapters that did nothing to move the plot forward at all.

I didn’t think The Distant Hours was a terrible book – just a bit disappointing and not really worth the time it took to read it. To those of you who’ve read all three of Kate Morton’s books, do you think it’s still worth me reading The House at Riverton?

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s latest book, The Distant Hours, is getting a lot of attention at the moment but I thought that before I decided whether to buy it I should really read the previous two books of hers that have been sitting on my shelf unread for a long time. I’m so glad I finally decided to pick up The Forgotten Garden because, although it wasn’t perfect, I loved it overall.

In 1913, just before the beginning of World War I, a port master finds a little girl with a suitcase sitting alone on the docks at Maryborough, Australia. With no sign of the child’s parents and no clue to her identity, he takes the girl home with him, where he and his wife name her Nell and raise her as their own daughter. But what was Nell doing in Australia? Who were her real parents? And what is her connection with the mysterious Eliza Makepeace, writer of fairy tales?

When Nell dies in 2005, she leaves everything to her granddaughter, Cassandra – including a cottage in Cornwall, England. When Cassandra travels to Cornwall to investigate, she begins to uncover some secrets about her grandmother’s identity and attempts to solve the mystery of Cliff Cottage.

At first I thought I was going to have a problem with Kate Morton’s writing style. She has quite a flowery, descriptive style which you’ll either love or hate. For example:

Was it always this way? Did those with passage booked on death’s silent ship always scan the dock for faces of the long-departed?

As the book went on though, the writing bothered me less, because I was becoming so absorbed in the story. It had a wonderful atmosphere and was very reminiscent of The Secret Garden in places (the manor house, the invalid cousin, the walled garden – and Frances Hodgson Burnett even makes a brief appearance!) It also felt a bit like a Daphne du Maurier book in places (particularly the Cornwall scenes) and the Swindell family whom Eliza lives with in turn-of-the-century London could have come straight from a Dickens novel. Some of Eliza’s fairy tales are even included in the book which I thought was a nice touch although I wasn’t too impressed with the stories themselves.

The biggest problem I had with this book was the constant jumping around in time and place. One chapter would be set in London in 1900, the next in Brisbane in 2005 and the next in Cornwall in 1975, which disrupted the flow of the story and made it difficult to follow. We also switch narrator with every chapter, which made me even more confused, particularly as there was almost nothing to differentiate between the voices of Cassandra, Nell and Eliza. It was too easy to forget who I was reading about. Eliza’s storyline was by far the most interesting of the three though and I think it would probably have worked on its own as a straight historical fiction novel.

The solution to the mystery was made very obvious to the reader from early on in the book, so when it was finally revealed it came as an anti-climax. This didn’t really spoil the story for me but it was slightly frustrating to watch Cassandra trying to solve the mystery and knowing that she was getting it completely wrong. I would have appreciated it if some of the clues could have been kept from the reader until nearer the end.

Other than those few points, I loved this book, which was great because I really hadn’t expected to. For such a long and complex book it was surprisingly quick to read.

Those of you who have read all of Kate Morton’s books, how does this one compare to The House at Riverton or The Distant Hours?