Kate Morton is strongest when writing about houses, houses with history, atmospheric, beautiful, brooding houses. Birchwood Manor in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is haunted by what happened there. A death, a theft, a drowning. The truth is a complicated tale of twists and turns, Morton gives us numerous characters from slices of history from a Pre-Raphaelite group of artists to National Trust-like ownership today.
The mystery starts from page one, the Prologue, told in the voice of an unknown woman remembering her arrival at Birchwood Manor with Edward. When the rest of the house party leave, ‘I had no choice; I stayed behind.’ Is she a ghost? Cut straight to today and archivist Elodie who unpacks an old leather satchel finds inside a photograph of a woman and an intriguing sketchbook. Leafing through the pages she stops dead, seeing a drawing of a house she knows though she has never been there. It featured in a bedtime story told by her mother. Is it a real place? Does it have magical powers as local tales suggest? ‘It is a strange house, built to be purposely confusing. Staircases that turn at unusual angles, all knees and elbows and uneven treads; windows that do not line up no matter how one squints at them; floorboards and wall panels with clever concealments.’
The mysteries of the drawing, the house, the girl in the photograph and a missing blue diamond are told in multiple viewpoints from 1862 to today. Four big mysteries to unravel means complicated threads woven between the years and the characters and I was tempted to keep notes of who said what and lost track of the year, a couple of times. At the end, I was left with a couple of outstanding questions but nothing to spoil my enjoyment of the book. I found the title rather misleading as Birdie the clockmaker’s daughter, though being one of the key characters, is not the only essential component. The house though is at the centre of everything.
We follow the story of Elodie, whose mother died when she was six and who is about to be married. Of Birdie, who lost her mother when she was four and was left with a baby farmer and trained as a pickpocket. Of Ada Lovegrove who is essentially abandoned by her parents who bring her from India and dump her at Birchwood House, now a school for young ladies. Of Leonard Gilbert, survivor of the Great War, who comes to Birchwood to write a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Radcliffe. Of Jack Rolands who is living now at Birchwood and seems to be searching for something. Of Lucy Radcliffe, Edward’s little sister, and my favourite character. Lucy, a curious little girl, encouraged by her brother to improve her mind by reading, was ‘learning fast that she knew a lot less about her own motivations than she did about the way the internal combustion engine worked.’
Piece by piece, Elodie unravels the true story. The story switches quickly between narrators which can be disorientating and it is only towards the end that some links fit into the bigger picture which makes it a little frustrating. Morton does not write short novels, this is 592 pages, and at times I wanted to cut superfluous detail to get to the meat of the story. A beautiful cover, though.
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THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER by Kate Morton #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3yi via @SandraDanby