A pair of solitary souls confront their old ghosts in Morrall’s follow-up to the Man Booker–nominated Astonishing Splashes of Colour (2004).
Peter Straker is extraordinarily wracked by guilt: He holds himself responsible for the deaths of 78 people in a train wreck nearly 25 years ago, and since the accident he’s been living quietly—indeed, practically mute—in a lighthouse on the Devon coast. The son of a wealthy family, he has the means to do nothing but give himself hell for his actions, rarely letting the accident escape his mind. Unwittingly entering his life is mousy, cranky Imogen Doody, who has a host of problems of her own: She bears the weight of her sister’s suicide; her husband has abandoned her; and though she’s just inherited a house near the lighthouse, she has no idea how to manage it after years of neglect have rotted the place. What ensues during the first half of the novel isn’t a romance but a smartly rendered portrait of how these two emotionally stunted, selfish souls learn simply to talk to one another; Morrall has an excellent ear for dialogue, which clarifies Imogen’s unthinkingly critical attitude and Peter’s outsize capacity for self-flagellation. In the year that follows, Imogen’s home becomes more liveable, her relationship with Peter gains some warmth and Morrall offers more details on the extent to which Peter is responsible for the train wreck, while the relatives of those killed plot to confront him. Morrall is a fine stylist, and while her story is much more propulsive than most hefty meditations on guilt and shame, it also suffers from a distracting tidiness that saps its energy in the later chapters. The cracks in Imogen’s home and Peter’s lighthouse make neat metaphors for their broken pasts, and the characters who arrive by the end exist mainly to offer platitudes about conquering demons.
Not so much a failure as a missed opportunity—a potentially nuanced story about one’s capacity for forgiveness that gives way to movie-of-the-week sentimentality.