By 1960 the once-great Fairfaxes have dwindled to a dysfunctional family living in a house on the suburban estate built over their former lands. Sixteen-year-old Isobel pines for Malcolm Lovat while her brother Charles collects stories of the unexplained. Their aunt Vinny gives what little affection she can muster to her horde of cats and the loutish lodger. Their young stepmother Debbie fights ineffectually against mess and paranoia, becoming convinced that inanimate objects are moving when her back is turned. And their father Gordon drifts around in the midst of it all. The two teenagers puzzle over the central mystery of their lives: what became of their mother Eliza, and why, after she left, their father vanished for seven years before bringing Debbie back from New Zealand. Neither one realises that the answer - or is it only part of the answer? - is somewhere in their memories, if they could only find it. Meanwhile Isobel is dealing with a mystery of her own - why does she keep dropping out of the present and into random points in the past? And why do none of the people in the past seem to mind that she’s there?
For the first three-quarters of its length this was a great read. Initially I wondered how a sixteen-year-old could have a narrating style like that, until it was mentioned that she spent a lot of time reading, at which point I decided it was entirely possible. It was full of delightful, subtle literary references, such as her description of the domestically-challenged Debbie as a ‘bleak housekeeper in hard times’. Charles made a kooky addition to the family, with his obsession with all things weird (like the disappearance rate among people crossing fields) and his amateur-detective attempts to salvage remnants of Eliza from about the house. And certainly pieces of Eliza’s life had a habit of turning up in unexpected places. Debbie was just as odd; not only did she suspect the crockery of moving, but believed everyone around her had been replaced with robotic replicas, and her general ditziness made me glad she hailed from the other side of the Tasman. In fact she reminded me of a guy I went to high school with, who once seriously claimed it was possible that, if absolutely no-one was watching, the flagpole out the front of the school would dance a jig on the lawn. And there was an element of mystery not only from Eliza, but the early depiction of the legend surrounding a much earlier Fairfax wife.
Then it suddenly went off the rails. Isobel’s decade-hopping became a full-blown Groundhog Day-style timewarp, before all the weirdness was explained away in a manner which had me mentally shrieking, “CHEAT!”. Only that wasn’t the end of the weirdness; it returned briefly and for no apparent reason. There was also a story about events in the past which ended with a twist revealing that it wasn’t the whole truth. I wound up abandoning all efforts even to wonder what was real and what wasn’t and after finishing the book still didn’t have a clue. Although it did reveal the answers to the mysteries, as well as several things more shocking, the end spoiled the whole book for me. Nor did I like the way in which things Isobel thought of as potential plot devices subsequently appeared for maybe-real. It made them seem like - well, mere plot devices to hurry the book to an end.