A remote house, a treacherous marsh, and an orphan child are the ingredients in this atmospheric gothic tale from a new British writer.
Virginia Wrathmell is 86 and frail when readers first meet her in Brooks’ evocative debut, reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s haunted dramas set in wild places. It’s December 2015, Virginia lives alone in spooky, decaying Salt Winds, on the edge of Tollbury Marsh, and on the last day of the year she plans to walk out to the marsh and allow it to swallow her. But in another timeline, dated December 1939, orphaned Virginia, age 10, is being introduced to Salt Winds by her kindly new adoptive father, Clem. Brooks’ tale shuttles between these two eras, revealing how sensitive Virginia’s childhood was swallowed up by events inside the house and on the marsh beyond. Clem’s wife, Lorna, not only expresses little of her husband’s welcoming excitement toward Virginia, but also seems unable to shake off the attentions of creepy local widower Max Deering, to whom Lorna was once engaged. Deering, who takes a lingering interest in Virginia, too, is forever underfoot, never more so than when Clem disappears on the marsh, searching for a German airman whose plane has crashed there. With Clem absent, a mysterious man in the attic, and villainous, mustachioed Max turning up at all hours, the atmosphere at Salt Winds becomes both secretive and feverish. And in the 2015 storyline, the house is visited by an impulsive young woman whose ties to the past compel Virginia to change—and darken—her plans for this, her last day. Ambiguous and infused with both fairy tale and matters more threatening, Brooks’ novel is persuasively descriptive—“where sky, sand, and water dissolved into nothing and nowhere”—but doesn’t quite knit together. Deering’s semifarcical lechery, Lorna’s perplexing psychology, and the ends left dangling rob the story of conviction.
A committed, stylish mystery better at composing its mood music than pulling all the notes together.