In the aftermath of a destroyed reputation, and the death of her mother, Tessa takes refuge at an isolated estate, which is cared for by two elderly sisters. Fallbrook has been left to Tessa in her mother’s will and she hopes to get away from the publicity surrounding a huge lapse of judgement. As a filmmaker she helped free a man she believed was wrongly imprisoned for murder. After he’s freed, he kills again. Without her normal support network, she feels getting away is her only option. Since their mother’s death, she’s had to face tensions from the past particularly her ruined relationship with her sister Margot. So Fallbrook seems like all she has, but all lonely old estates have secrets. The caretaking elderly sisters are looking after Tessa’s family past as well as the crumbling mansion. Will this turn out to be the haven Tessa needs or will her need to find answers create even more problems?
I found this a very atmospheric and absorbing read. From time to time I would be interrupted and find out I wasn’t in a crumbling mansion house full of secrets. Essentially we have two sets of sisters. Tessa and Margot used to be the best of friends, as close as twins can be. They last spoke twenty years ago. Margot’s husband Ben, used to be Tessa’s boyfriend and the one person she could talk to. As Tessa became assailed by anxiety, hospitalised and medicated, she tried to appeal to Ben to intercede with her sister. At Fallbrook there is Deirdre who is practical and forthright. Deirdre looks after Kitty who is now struggling with dementia. They are living in the building, and holding its history and secrets. However, far from trying to keep the place alive they are tasked with watching it, and all its secrets, crumble to the ground and be forgotten.
The family history is a gruesome one. There’s kidnapping, abuse within the family, not to mention Kitty’s dementia. I liked the idea of making her the custodian of the stories, knowing that dementia patients are more often connected with their past than their present made this even more poignant for me. There’s a question in the reader at first over whether she can remember these events or are they part of her delusions? Despite such distressing subjects, Maxwell has a very poetic way of writing about them:
‘ the screams have long since died away. The bloodstains, like the memories, have faded with time’.
As a reader I found myself more engaged with these older stories, than the ongoing conflict in the present. I wanted to unearth more and that kept me reading. This seems to sit in that realm of gothic fiction that contains: narrators recent distress, old gothic mansion, family secrets and younger generation coming along to unearth them. I’ve read a few of these, but I enjoyed this one immensely. It has just the right pace of revelations and the spooky atmosphere was perfection.