In England in 1913 a little girl waits on the deck of a ship, looking forward to her voyage to America. She has been put there by a woman she knows only as the Authoress, who has told her to hide, to wait, and never to tell anybody her name. The Authoress never returns, and the little girl disembarks alone - not in New York, but in Maryborough, Australia.
In Brisbane in 2005, Cassandra’s grandmother dies and leaves her a surprise bequest - a Cornish cottage she had never known existed. Her great-aunts give her something else - the information that Nell was no blood relation of theirs, that no one knew where she had come from. The only clue is a small suitcase containing, among other things, a volume of fairy tales by Eliza Makepeace. Armed with this and Nell’s notes from her own research trip in 1975, Cassandra travels to England to finish the process of unearthing the family tree and the reason why a four-year-old girl was abandoned and sent to the other side of the world. On the edge of what was once the Blackhurst estate she discovers a tumbledown place with a reputation so black no one in Tregenna would buy it, and a garden accessible only by squeezing under the wall. Determining Nell’s true identity is relatively easy, but the train of events leading her to the docks and the Authoress out of history is a complex one that has been buried for nearly one hundred years. In untangling her grandmother’s past, Cassandra will come to terms with her own.
I picked this up at the library on a let’s-see-what-the-fuss-is-about whim (yes, I do occasionally add 600+ page books to my library haul on the spur of the moment) and good thing I did - and not just for the highly enjoyable story. The little girl’s predicament drags you right into the story at the start, and it feels shorter than it is - pages fly when you’re having fun. The frequent jumps in time and place, around once every 10 or 12 pages, were a bit head-spinning at first, but I soon got used to them and liked not knowing where or when the next chapter was going to take me.
And I loved the characters. Nell can seem forbidding, but that abandoned little girl is still there inside, waiting for the answers she never found. Eliza is a character I’d like to step into the book and spend time with - she’d be a lot of fun, with her ability to spin a story out of anything. Three of her stories were worked into the novel, and I wanted more! (I went and borrowed a volume of A. S. Byatt fairy tales from the library yesterday to compensate). I could really relate to Cassandra, who had packed away dreams and settled for something less, and there are several very different but equally loathsome villains.
Some of the mystery was puzzling, and some of the twists were a shock. The rest of the time, though, it was all too easy to hypothesise about what was coming, and part of the big secret I saw a mile off. Then I got frustrated waiting for the characters to catch up - until I realised that they couldn’t, for the simple reason that I knew more than they did. The modern mystery-solvers were short-changed in terms of information - the reader was told more than they were - which struck me as the author not playing fair with the characters. They would have been left with at least one unanswered question, whereas the reader knew all. Also, there were a couple of coincidences which stretched disbelief. But given that I started the book with no expectations whatever, the fact that these things disappointed me shows how much the first part appealed to me and gave me high hopes for the rest. Except for those points, I really enjoyed it; and when I wasn’t reading it I wished I was.
And now a question: What do you do when you’re a would-be novelist and discover multiple similarities between your work-in-progress and an existing book? Would you try to change some of the twenty-odd things they have in common? Add to or emphasise the differences? Or leave it as is and hope that if you are so talented and fortunate as to be published, no one will notice? (Or if they do, that they’ll correctly attribute it to coincidence rather than anything nefarious.) Because that’s the predicament I’m now in. (*Sigh* ... I’d be much more sanguine about this if it was an obscure book published decades ago on the other side of the world, rather than a recent, much-publicised novel from this very city.)