I have to confess I am a huge fan of Kate Morton’s ever since I read her debut novel The House at Riverton. There is something about her books that makes me feel instantly better, probably because they remind me of my love for literature and words. So, when I learned her latest work would be out in October 2015 I made a mental note of adding it to my Christmas wishlist. It would be the jewel of the crown, that gift that represents all the good feelings and love of Christmas on itself. Thanks to Mum and Dad for the expensive and so beautiful hardcover copy of The Lake House.
All families were a composite of stories, and yet her own, it seemed, comprised more layers of tellings and retellings than most. There were so many of them, for one thing, and they all liked to talk and write and wonder.
On her fifth novel, Kate Morton takes us to Cornwall, summer of 1933. The Edevanes are about to celebrate their epic midsummer party at Loeanneth, their family home, and everyone is busy running their chores, except for Alice Edevane, who is 16 and a daydreamer. As we follow her around the big family house, we learn of her sisters, Clementine and Deborah, her little brother Theo, and her mother, a perfectionist who will not let Alice alone. By midnight, everyone is celebrating and Theo is gone.
Theo Edevane’s disappearance is the main event, or the corpus delicti that sets the whole plot in motion, but as it usually happens with Morton’s novels, there is much more going on in the background. Alice’s storyline from 1933 is masterfully interwoven with that of detective Sadie Sparrow who, in 2003, has been sent on an enforced break to rest that leads her to her grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall. There, she learns of Theo’s disappearance and takes an interest in the case as she tries to free her mind from her own personal troubles. In this 2003 timeline, Alice Edevane has become one of the United Kingdom’s best crime fiction writers, although not one interested in her own family mystery.
I firmly believe The Lake House is Kate Morton’s best novel up to now, and I think she will have to work really hard to deliver a better story in her next book. My love for the novel probably comes from the fact that she has finally introduced a detective in her novels and a very good one. Sadie Sparrow is young, ambitious and a workaholic who also happens to love running – in the recent fashion of running detectives. I felt inspired and very attached to the character whilst reading, and I think Morton could very well construct a series of novels for Detective Sparrow, although she has said during an interview at Goodreads that will not be the case.
Alice Edevane, on the other hand, is quite a character on her own. If we have reached a time when female dislikable characters are finally free to inhabit our books, then Alice is the very embodiment of that freedom. 1933 Alice, at least. As a teenager, she makes the world revolve around her and her daydreaming. As a well-known and settled crime writer, educated in an upper-class family, she still retains some traces of disdain that will make modern readers cringe… but love her. Morton makes a great job at making Alice a more complex and troubled character than she appears to be, and the access she grants us to Alice’s internal world will help us understand her better, even though we may not agree with her. Also, being a crime fiction writer, Alice offers some of the best comments on the genre, especially through her morally dubious detective Diggory Brent.
As a crime novel, The Lake House is just the perfect update of cosy reading. By including the troubled detective in the historical narration, Morton has managed to remain faithful to her origins while experimenting with the evolution of crime fiction. I have to admit that if you are a fan of Morton you will maybe glimpse at the ending coming, but you are very likely not to see it. She manages this by using different points of views and making the reader remember that a character’s narration is just that: their side of the story. There is also an improvement from her earlier works in the way she deals with morality. I think that by introducing Alice and her fictional detective Digorry Brent, Morton has found a space to develop a less rigid take on morality, much more in consonance with nowadays crime fiction. Sadie herself admits that “Alice had a nuanced outlook on matters of justice and its course”, and the very Alice says of her works:
They were the sort of crime novels reviewers liked to describe as “psychologically taunt” and “morally ambiguous”, whydunits as much as they were whos or hows. As she herself had famously said in an interview with the BBC, murder in and of itself was not engaging; it was the drive to kill, the human factor, the fervors and furies motivating the dreadful act that rendered it compelling.
I wholeheartedly recommend The Lake House to anyone looking for a great, chunky novel. I started reading it while I was taking some time off from my PhD, but I went back to work again while reading it. I remember the commute back home from the library, after spending more than six hours reading and writing, and my only wish was to curl up in bed and read The Lake House. I also recommend spoiling yourself and getting the hardback edition, as it is beautifully designed both inside and outside, and it is quite light, so could carry with you without risking a back injury.