An English country house. A missing diamond. A sepia photograph. A star-crossed romance. A plucky orphan. A children’s story. A drowning. A disappearance. A murder. A ghost. …
Let’s see. Have I left anything out of “The Clockmaker’s Daughter,” Kate Morton’s new saga of substance? Oh, yes. The priest holes. The pickpockets. The struggling artist. The famous cellist. The wartime evacuees. The graveyard. The schoolgirls. The leather satchel. The little sister. The old letters. The legacy of lies. And the secrets. So many secrets.
As in such previous novels as “The Lake House” and “The Distant Hours,” Morton leisurely layers Gothic details with classic romantic suspense, shifting between past and present, spinning involving stories within stories. What ties them together is the title character, who is also the leadoff and recurring narrator, eventually revealed to be Birdie Bell, aka Lily Millington.
In the summer of 2017, young archivist Elodie Winslow discovers an old photograph of a beautiful woman and an artist’s sketch of a country house that seems oddly familiar. She should be planning her wedding, but she’s preoccupied with the history of Birchwood Manor, which looks just like the house in a fairy tale handed down in her family.
In the summer of 1862, rising Victorian painter Edward Radcliffe and a small group of fellow artists retreat to Birchwood, which Radcliffe has recently purchased. Lily Millington, Radcliffe’s flame-haired model and muse, is there, as is Radcliffe’s youngest sister, Lucy. His fiancée, Fanny Brown, arrives unexpectedly. The idyll ends in disaster with the shooting of one woman and the disappearance of another. Only the ghost knows the truth.
Elodie, of course, goes looking for it, and Birchwood’s past unspools in long chapters set in different eras. In 1892, lonely schoolgirl Ada Lovegood, recently arrived from India, finds a friend in the house’s current owner. After World War I, a historian who lost his brother in the trenches researches Edward Radcliffe’s life and career. In 1940, a war widow and homefront reporter escapes bombed-out London for the countryside. When Elodie visits Birchwood, it has become a house museum, and a taciturn photojournalist is in residence.
All of these people have experienced loss, all have secrets. Still, one wishes for more surprises in the crowded narrative. There’s enough material for several novels, and a couple of characters — little Lucy, Juliet the reporter — are worthy heroines on their own. As to the bittersweet revelations of “The Clockmaker’s Daughter,” the truth, as one character observes, belongs to the one doing the telling. Do you believe in ghosts?
Nancy Pate is a writer and reviewer in Orlando who likes a good cup of tea while reading English novels.
The Clockmaker's Daughter
By: Kate Morton.
Publisher: Atria Books, 485 pages, $28.