A compulsively readable, sturdily plotted mystery set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, the central importance of paintings, diaries, and ghosts lends the intrigue a distinctly Jamesian feel.
In the first, and stronger, half, we meet Australian teenager Gerard Freeman just as he’s opened a pen-pal relation with Alice, who lives in England. Over time, their relationship becomes epistolarily passionate as they share the most intimate secrets of each other’s fantasies. Alice, however, confides that she’s bound to a wheelchair and is highly reluctant to meet Gerard. Woven into the rest is the secretive family history of Gerard’s mother Phyllis, who grew up in wartime England, including the enigmatic death of her sister Anne. This background unfolds slowly through a series of short stories that are reprinted in the book, written in the early 20th century by his great-grandmother “V.H.” (Viola), and suggesting that Phyllis was involved in Anne’s death. The stories are of course drawn in varying degrees from the actual lives of the girls, and it becomes Gerard’s personal project to sort out what happened in the lives of the women and what was pure fiction. A subplot involves the work of an artist, Henry St. Clair, whose paintings, which many find mesmerizing, iconically refer to madness and the existence of ghosts. British author Harwood’s touch in evoking the relation between the visual arts and inner states of mind is admirably sure, and Gerard does in fact untangle the family mysteries and find out the identity of his pen-pal Alice—but not before spirits and ghostlike voices have given him a number of promptings.
A wonderful debut, evoking a century’s worth of family history, by a multitalented and artistically ambidextrous newcomer.