Washington Square Press, 2010; 554 pages
Originally published by Allen & Unwin, 2008
Description from the publisher:
A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book – a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, "Nell" sets out to trace her real identity. Her quest leads her to Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast and the secrets of the doomed Mountrachet family. But it is not until her granddaughter, Cassandra, takes up the search after Nell's death that all the pieces of the puzzle are assembled.My Thoughts:
I have to admit, I started this book with a lot of misgivings, not expecting to finish it. It's long (over 500 pages in the paperback edition), the story was improbable and formulaic, and none of the characters seemed particularly sympathetic. Morton makes rather liberal use of plot elements from Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic The Secret Garden, the sort of thing I usually don't approve of. And the writing in general is a mish-mash of styles, with bits of Charles Dickens here, Daphne Du Maurier there, and a little A.S. Byatt thrown in for good measure.
But even with all those things stacked against it, the book really won me over in the end. I wasn't even too bothered by the inclusion of all those fairy tales from the mysterious book at the center of the novel – the story-within-a-story device can be be boring and superfluous, but here it seemed a natural and necessary addition. I still think that most (though not all) of the characters were off-putting – some more than others. And I finally got very impatient with the way the plot jumped around among all the different settings and voices and time lines – at times, that made it difficult to figure out exactly where and when the action was taking place. But that seems to be pretty standard for novels these days. Whatever happened to just telling the story?
I'd give this one a very solid B, maybe even a B+. It gets strong marks for having an interesting older woman as one of the main characters, even though some of her behavior is a little questionable. It's wonderfully atmospheric with its hidden walled garden, mysterious maze, and frequent images from folk and fairy tales. And it kept me guessing and re-evaluating right up to the final chapter. And it's a book about a book – how could I not love that?