by Susanna Kearsley
I enjoy books that have spooky or paranormal elements in them but keep you wondering if, after all, there might be a logical explanation for at least some of it. Sometimes what seems to be paranormal activity is actually quite earthly activity. Sometimes there really are ghosties and ghoulies or all manner of supernatural happenings. And sometimes it is a combination of both. The late great Barbara Michaels was a master of gothic and contemporary romantic suspense novels that were firmly rooted in the metaphysical. Susanna Kearsley is often compared to Mary Stewart, but I find her more closely aligned with Barbara Michaels. Susanna (may I call her Susanna?) loves to use the dual timeline where the heroine travels in some way between two worlds, present times and times of centuries past. She is known for her impeccable research and authenticity in bringing forth past worlds.
Lynette is a literary agent spending the Christmas holidays in Wales with one of her authors and good friend, Bridget, Bridget’s boyfriend, a critically acclaimed author, and his brother. Nearby is a near-legendary reclusive grouchy playwright as well as the caretaker of Castle Farm (a real place) and his wife. Also living in an apartment attached to the main house is Elen, a young widow with a baby, whom, shall we say, has her feet firmly planted in the clouds. Or as it is put, “She’s just inherited her mother’s way of seeing things, the Celtic way, that sees the past and future worlds all blended in with ours. That isn’t mad, it’s Welsh.” She is convinced that a dragon is after her baby, like in an ancient Welsh tale, and that Lynette has been sent to protect him. Sadly, 5 years earlier Lynette’s own baby died in childbirth, and Lynette, continually haunted by nightmares, has not healed from the tragic loss. Interwoven throughout the book are elements of the Arthurian myths and legends and actual British history alike including Henry VII, his remarkable mother Margaret, and the baby who would someday become Henry VIII. As is usual while reading Kearsly’s books I was driven to Wikipedia and Google Maps to get a grounding in the historical background and the actual historical sites that come into play. Margaret and Merlin come to both Lynette and Ellen in dreams, and we are meant to see parallels and influences between the present and the past. Is history repeating itself? Is Elin’s baby really in danger? And what is Lynette meant to do about it?
For me, Susanna did not adequately bring the fantastical together with the real in a coherent way. To my mind, this intertwining should have been the heart and soul of the book. I loved learning about Queen Margaret, legendary and historical Welsh figures, and the Arthurian legends as told by Tennyson and other accounts. I was awaiting with curiosity and interest for all to be revealed and past and present, and reality and fantasy to come together in true Susanna Kearsley fashion, but it just didn’t. I don’t mind if mysterious things remain mysterious or not fully explained, but I at least want these things addressed and acknowledged. For example, At one point, while sightseeing, Lynette sees an old man, “tall and thin with stooped shoulders and with wispy white hair that blew wild in the wind” emerge from a cave. He is wearing a woolen wrap that trails behind him. He approaches Lynette with eyes as “sharp as chips of gray granite” and in a melodious voice intones, “ Take you care of the boy.” Her two companions saw and talked to him earlier so he is not a figment of Lyn’s imagination. Lynette makes no connection with Merlin come to life, or Elin’s oft-stated belief that Lynette is her baby son’s protector because Merlin told her so. She wonders about it for about five minutes but strangely concludes the old guy was referring to her adult male companion whom he must have taken to be her boyfriend. And then she just forgets all about it. She is unfazed, while I was all “WHY ISN’T SHE FREAKING OUT RIGHT NOW!!??” That she might have just had an encounter with Merlin does not even cross her mind after all that she has been exposed to. It’s where the book lost me.
As always, Susanna Kearsley’s prose is beautifully written, her characters are interesting, the dialogue sophisticated, and the descriptions evocative. There is an exciting climax and satisfying resolution to Lynette’s road to her personal recovery and romantic happy ending. The clues to the source of the danger and mystery, when we find out there is real danger and mystery, are fairly placed along with some very plausible red herrings. I think she tried to tackle too much in this fairly short (for her) novel and just fell too in love with all of the trappings. Interesting trappings, but in the end, just trappings.