There’s both comfort and security picking up the work of an author you not only love, but know has the ability to transport you to a different time and place – Kate Morton is one of those authors and her latest novel, The Lake House, that kind of book.
Set in two different time periods – basically, Cornwall prior to and during WWI and London and Cornwall in 2003 (as well as brief glimpses to other decades/years), the tale has many of the ingredients we’ve come to know and love from a Morton book. There’s the magnificent house filled with nooks and crannies and, of course, secrets, hidden amidst a marvellous setting of tangled woods, a sun-dappled lake with surging seas in the distance. Cue a family of four gorgeous children with a loving mother and father, a bitter old grandmother, a depressive but faithful older friend who once wrote a successful children’s book featuring the mother of the family as his heroine, a handsome young gardener and protective nurse who live beneath the roof of this house and you have a recipe for, in Morton’s hands, an enigmatic disaster.
Move forward seventy odd years. When detective Sadie Sparrow, a dedicated London-based police officer who has taken a serious career mis-step and been forced to take time off work stumbles upon the now decaying lake house while staying with her beloved grandfather, Bertie, in Cornwall, she knows she’s found something to take her mind off her own misfortune.
Learning that the wealthy and happy Edevane family lived in the house until the youngest child, 11-month old Theo, disappeared one Mid-summer’s Eve, never to be seen again, Sadie determines to get the bottom of the mystery.
And so Sadie opens up her own investigation into the past, a past that surviving members of the Edevane family, including famous crime novelist and octogenarian, Alice Edevane, whose very first novel was about a baby who vanishes, would prefer left alone.
Segueing between the present and Sadie’s complex personal and professional situation and the discoveries about the Edevane family she makes, and moving back to pre 1914 and the formation of the Edevane family itself, the mystery of Theo’s fate is slowly and beautifully unravelled.
Readers learn how his mother, the lovely and headstrong Eleanor, meets the dashing and clever, Anthony. We are privy to the births of their children, the three girls and baby Theo. We understand the love and trust Eleanor and Anthony bear for Mr Llewellyn, but also the rancour and distance they feel towards Eleanor’s rather embittered mother, Constance. As we learn about the Edevanes and those who share the house with them, we’re given insights into how the war impacts upon the family and what lies beneath the apparent picture of perfection and happiness they all present.
Once again, the house is as much a character as any of the people who are beautifully and richly drawn. Atmospheric, Morton’s way of describing characters and place brings them to life in the mind’s eye and allows your senses to respond to each person and scene. We smell the blooms, hear the pounding of the ocean, feel the slippery reeds in the cool lake as they wrap around ankles; we experience the first pangs of love, the steadfastness of loyalty promised and fulfilled, the guilt when personal expectations fail and above all, the fear and dread that war and its aftermath brings in its wake.
This is a novel about families, secrets, regrets, promises, failings and so much more. It’s about how decisions of the past impinge upon the present. It’s about consequences, truth and lies and how running from your past is virtually impossible. As the adage goes, it has a way of catching up – and when you least expect it.
It’s also about women and motherhood and it’s in exploring these themes and the issues they raise – and over different historical and social periods – that Morton excels. Far from offering a series of binaries through which to understand women’s choices, painting a portrait of perfect or imperfect motherhood, or presenting a treatise on the failings of or superiority of one type of mothering or the vogue of a specific period compared to another, Morton examines motherhood from the inside out. The stultifying and shattering effects of patriarchy and war on family, as well as ways of liberating oneself and your offspring from these are measured, as is the extent to which mothers will go in order to do the best for their children and for the fathers who also love them. Yes, there’s guilt, self-sacrifice and a surrendering of the self in order to achieve what seems so often impossible, raising another human within shifting familial, social and cultural principles, to be balanced, happy and resilient, but there’s also internal ambivalence, a longing for the person you once were to emerge, even if that threatens to topple a carefully built edifice and undermine painstakingly laid foundations. But there’s also fleeting recognition that wearing a mask – of competency, social orderliness, happiness, no regrets – is an illusion that can do as much damage as adhering to it can avoid confrontation and the possibility of change. There are many different types of women and mothers in the book and a range of motivations offered for decisions reached. It’s easy to recognise aspects of yourself – and the children these women raise – in them all.
Captivating and heart-wrenching at times, The Lake House was a wonderful read. My only reservation is the ending is so damn neat – a bit too pat. I shed a tear as knotty threads were unravelled and mysteries solved, and while I didn’t see some of the twists coming, others I did and felt the resolutions were sometimes too perfect. It was very difficult to suspend my disbelief. The novel explored the imperfections of life so well, and then rounded out the tale by ignoring that which was so beautifully investigated. Not that this will stop me recommending this book or continuing to feel delight at what it offered – pure escapism.