A melodramatic debut set in an idyllic English river valley.
For 30 years, the tragic drowning of the MacKinnon children, Catherine and Jack, in a boating accident in the 1950s, has haunted not only their subsequently estranged parents, Isabel and Robert, but also Josef Sevier, the friend who did not drown with them. Isobel, eaten up with fury and disbelief at her loss, has kept her mental instability in check under a carapace of steely efficiency. But when unmarried mother Anna settles in the blissful Devon village of Cameldip, Isabel becomes increasingly delusional and possessive of Anna’s new baby, Matthew. Threat and suspense are juxtaposed with lyrical romanticism as Wastvedt seesaws up and down the decades, introducing other village couples and interspersing layers of detail into the basic story. Josef’s parents, Adelie and Xavier, arrived dreamily, stepping off a train without their luggage, transplanted from Alsace to live a life of Gallic charm among the water meadows. The kind, widowed local doctor employed an attractive young housekeeper, Sarah, who comforted Robert after the tragedy and bore him a daughter, a secret she never divulged to him. Josef, grown into a withdrawn innkeeper who keeps shire horses in his art nouveau aviary, becomes involved with Anna as Christmas approaches. Then the story switches gears, dodging here and there among its many characters, piling on the effects and pulling out all the stops. Isabel, now completely convinced that Matthew is Jack, bashes Anna over the head and snatches the baby. A fire destroys Josef’s aviary—though not his horses. A flood surges down the river, threatening Isabel, who has taken Matthew on another of her deranged walks. Robert saves them both but dies himself. Nor is there a happy ending for brain-damaged Anna.
Wastvedt’s flowing, long-winded tale, set in a Constable landscape in a parallel universe, is a deft but peculiar fusion of gothic and rhapsodic.