A Place of Secrets, by Rachel Hore

>> Monday, December 06, 2010

TITLE: A Place of Secrets
AUTHOR: Rachel Hore

PAGES: 456

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: I kind of liked the first of this author's books that I read, The Memory Garden. Her plots appeal to me, even if the execution of TMG wasn't as good as it could have been.

The night before it all begins, Jude has the dream again ...

Can dreams be passed down through families? As a child Jude suffered a recurrent nightmare: running through a dark forest, crying for her mother. Now her six-year-old niece, Summer, is having the same dream, and Jude is frightened for her. A successful auctioneer, Jude is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. When she's asked to value a collection of scientific instruments and manuscripts belonging to Anthony Wickham, a lonely 18th century astronomer, she leaps at the chance to escape London for the untamed beauty of Norfolk, where she grew up.

As Jude untangles Wickham's tragic story, she discovers threatening links to the present. What have Summer's nightmares to do with Starbrough folly, the eerie crumbling tower in the forest from which Wickham and his adopted daughter Esther once viewed the night sky? With the help of Euan, a local naturalist, Jude searches for answers in the wild, haunting splendour of the Norfolk woods. Dare she leave behind the sadness in her own life, and learn to love again?
When antiquarian Jude is offered the opportunity of valuing a collection of books and telescopes belonging to 18th century astronomer Anthony Wickham, she grabs it with both hands. Her grandmother and sister both live in the area (her gran even grew up in a cottage in the very estate where the collection is housed), and Jude doesn't see them as often as she'd like to. Plus, the subject matter is interesting.

Jude has barely started going through the collection when she finds a journal written by someone called Esther Wickham. As she reads through it, she discovers that Esther was Anthony's adopted daughter, and had an unsuspected role in her father's work. Through Esther's own words, we, too, get her story.

The discovery of Esther's journal isn't the only issue for Jude to concentrate on. She and her very prickly sister have always had a bit of a conflictive relationship, and this is only aggravated when Jude attracts the attention of a man Claire might have had her eye on. Not to mention, Claire's daughter has started having bad dreams that sound exactly like the ones that have tormented Jude all her life. And when the little girl starts dreaming of things that Jude later confirms in Esther's journal, it all gets even weirder.

This is a type of story I like. The story within a story, with the discovery of the details of someone's life through clues the present-day character finds, the paranormal elements that don't overwhelm the plot, the several plot lines that you just know are going to be connected but have no idea how, a bit of romance and a good dose of family drama -all stuff I very much enjoy. And I did enjoy it here, only I can't help but think that if the execution had been a bit better, it would have been a cracking good book.

The main area where I thought Hore could have done a much better job was the lack of any real detective work to actually discover the story of Esther. The absolute master at doing this, in my opinion, is Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters). The reason it works so well when she does it is that her characters might accidentally run into the begining of the story, but it's never easy to get the whole of it. They have to do research and look in unlikely places, and there's often a moment of almost-despair, when they think they've ran into a wall and will never be able to find out what really happened. In this book, though, Jude's effort is limited to deciphering some hard-to-read handwriting and checking a hole. There's a little bit more work near the end, but the amount of coincidence required to make things work is rather unbelievable. It's all a bit unsatisfying, and it was pretty much the same sort of thing in the previous book of Hore's that I read.

The rest was good, and I think what I liked best was the very fraught relationship between Jude and Claire. It's clear they both love each other, but for some reason always end up doing things that hurt the other. There were also hints of some big betrayal in the past, and I must say, Hore really got me there. I was absolutely convinced (as I'm sure she was intending, given the hints she kept dropping) something in particular had happened. I was completely wrong, and I can't be upset about it, because there was no trickery involved, just good and well-place red herrings.

All in all, a nice, if low-key story.



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