The remote British town of Canterlow remains virtually untouched by time or tragedy, even in 1919. The single exception is the sad story of Alice Hood, who drowned herself and her unborn child after she was cast aside by her secret boyfriend—presumably a soldier, though locals conjecture about his identity. Alice’s sister Etta haunts Canterlow like a distracted ghost, vowing revenge on the man who ruined Alice. When young Lorna Kent arrives from the small but busy city of Donnerton upon the death of Belle, her beloved aunt and confidante, Belle’s abrasive sister Mabel takes Lorna in, a hard transition for both women. Although Lorna, on her previous visit to Canterlow, saw Alice walking in tears toward the site of her suicide, she keeps this memory to herself. Soon enough, though, she is drawn to Etta and befriends the young woman. Lorna finds relief from Aunt Mabel in a teaching job at the local school and a new confidant, headmaster Adam Ushart, whose beautiful, bedridden wife Madeline lacks Lorna’s love of books and intellectual curiosity. Lorna’s affection for Ushart grows, and, ironically, she becomes close to Madeline as well when she fills in for absent nurse/companion Mrs. McNab. Eventually, however, another local death upsets Canterlow’s delicate balance, triggering a wave of threats and an act of retribution.
Gilbert (The Treachery of Time, 1996, etc.) tinges her pastoral portraits with Gothic touches. Her quiet prose has a palpable sense of menace. But the plot may be too aimless for fans of traditional mysteries.