A woman’s outlandish fears may turn out to be quite real in this historical thriller.
World War I is over but its scars remain. On the shores of Lake Como, Italy, Englishmen and women cross paths at a sanitarium. Penelope Jones is certain that someone is trying to kill her while her husband and family are more inclined to think this paranoia is the product of a troubled mind, exacerbated by the untimely death of her brother. Dr. Joseph Barnett in part agrees, but at the same time he finds himself challenged by the patient, as she swings from insisting on violent attackers around every corner to making erudite observations on Shakespeare, drawn from a deep well of professorial knowledge. Further complicating things, Barnett is intimately familiar with Penelope’s husband, Alexander Cavendish. While Cavendish is renowned as a war hero, Barnett served with him in the trenches and hates the man, as does the doctor’s wife, Rose, who treated both soldiers for their war wounds. But even as the story reveals more about all these characters’ pasts, so too does the plot thicken in the present, as physical evidence that Penelope is under assault begins to emerge and the thorny emotional and financial reasons behind even her marriage surface. While Penelope at times speaks of past lives and conspiracies, the other characters must face up to the mounting uncertainty over just how much of her delusion is madness—and how much is truth. Miller (When Darkness Comes, 2017, etc.) promises a story full of twists and turns and complex relationships and resentments—set against a powerful backdrop—and he absolutely delivers. The prose is solid, if a little rocky around the various characters’ introductions, where exposition can drown out the rest of the scene: “Her ancestors had been at the forefront of British affairs for several centuries, revered by most of the Empire’s subjects, but the current generation was cursed by tragedy.” But after these early growing pains, the plotting moves briskly, switching perspectives as the characters’ relationships deepen and become more intricate, all the while peppering readers with new clues as to just who won’t make it out of Italy alive.
A page-turner rife with historical details and timeless intrigue.