Morton’s interest in houses as repositories of secrets (The House at Riverton, 2008; The Lake House, 2015) reaches full flower in her latest novel.
The author's current architectural bellwether is Birchwood Manor, a country house on the Thames. Successive generations have inhabited Birchwood, which was the summer home, briefly, of Victorian artist Edward Radcliffe, member of a Pre-Raphaelite–esque painting cabal. All the people for whom Birchwood holds a special attraction are, in some way, abandoned children. The unifying presence at Birchwood is Lily, whose connection, presumably romantic, with Edward is not immediately revealed. She is also the only permanent tenant, since she is a ghost. Lily spies on the other guests, most recently Jack, a photojournalist, and occasionally meddles. At 5, Lily was consigned to a more genteel version of Fagin’s den of thieves by her clockmaker father, who then decamped for America. The characters across different time periods are enmeshed with each other and with Edward and the murky circumstances—including a murder and a diamond heist—preceding his death. In 2017, Elodie is an archivist who sees Lily’s photo among Edward’s effects and experiences a shock of recognition. Elodie’s mother, a famous cellist, also died under suspicious circumstances near Birchwood. In 1899, Ada, a young Anglo-Indian, is dropped off at the girls’ school that occupied Birchwood for a time, with no explanation by her parents, who then head back to India. Lucy, Edward’s sister, inherited the house and founded the school. In 1928, Leonard, a historian still grieving the loss of his brother in the Great War, arrives at Birchwood to research Edward, aided by the now elderly Lucy. Juliet, in 1940, escapes the London Blitz for the shelter of Birchwood. The ratcheting between eras makes sorting the many characters all the more challenging, while the powerful theme of bereft childhood gets lost in an excess of exemplars. Nevertheless, those who appreciate a leisurely and meditative read, with lush settings, meticulous period detail, and slowly unfurling enigmas, will enjoy this book.
Overpopulated and overworked.