A letter points the way to a castle in Kent, which harbors decades of grim secrets, in Morton’s latest (The House at Riverton, 2008, etc.).
Edie, a young woman underemployed by a London small press, is puzzled when her normally placid mother Meredith receives a long-delayed letter and bursts into tears. The letter, it turns out, is from Juniper, one of the three Blythe sisters who inhabit Milderhurst Castle, where Meredith, as a child during World War II, was evacuated to escape the Blitz. From here the story ricochets between the war years and the early 1990s. The evacuation proves to be an unexpected blessing for Meredith, a shy, bookish girl who’s misunderstood by her working-class family. Her teacher, Thomas Cavill, encourages her to excel in her studies. She finds true kinship with the three daughters of Raymond Blythe, famed author of a children’s classic entitled The True History of the Mud Man. Raymond, demented and delusional, has secluded himself in his tower room. Much to the chagrin of his eldest daughter Percy, Raymond has evinced an intention to disinherit his daughters. Second sister Saffy schemes to escape the castle for London. Percy is alarmed when Lucy, Milderhurst’s last remaining servant, deserts the family for marriage to their clock repairman—Percy's secret crush? Baby sister Juniper meets Thomas when he arrives to check on Meredith. After a whirlwind London love affair, Juniper defies Percy to announce wedding plans. Thrilled, Saffy makes Juniper a party dress and plans an engagement dinner. Juniper and Thomas are due from London by separate trains, but only Juniper shows up. Like Dickens' Miss Havisham, Juniper will grow old, still wearing the tatters of the dress she donned for the fiancé who got away. As Edie plumbs Milderhurst’s many mysteries, she also struggles to learn what short-circuited her mother’s dreams, so briefly kindled 50 years before.
After a lengthy buildup, which doggedly connects all the characters, however peripheral, there’s a rewarding, bittersweet payoff in the author’s most gothic tale yet.