I enjoyed this fascinating novel that fictionalises the famous disappearance of Agatha Christie. On December 3rd 1926, after an argument with her husband Archie, Agatha Christie disappeared. Although there is still some mystery around her movements, it seems she crashed her car while driving down to London. Thousands of police officers and volunteers scoured the countryside near the crash site for Christie, but she was nowhere to be found. It was a huge news story with Arthur Conan Doyle becoming involved and famously hiring a spirit medium to find her whereabouts. She stayed missing for eleven days until she was found in a spa hotel in Harrogate, signed in under the surname of Archie’s lover. Contemporary theories were that this was a publicity stunt, even though Christie appeared to have been in a fugue state. She may have suffered a nervous breakdown after hearing the news that Archie was leaving her. Nina de Gramont weaves a complex tale around this incident, told through the eyes of Nan – Archie Christie’s mistress – an Irish woman whose pursuit of Archie had been so successful he decided to leave Agatha and divorce her, in order to marry Nan. This is only one part of the jigsaw that makes up the full story the author is telling, ranging back and forth and touching on various viewpoints, with the central figure never quite clear and the importance of peripheral figures more vital than I first realised.
We travel back to WW1 and it’s terrible effects on the years that follow. A time when the nation didn’t yet know that the peace they’d achieved was a mere interval of respite where recovery was barely possible. Nan is born of an Irish family, living in London, but is sent back to visit relatives in County Cork in summer since childhood. There she forms a friendship with Finnbarr, a dark Irish boy who has an affinity with animals, particularly his sheepdog Alby. Over the years their friendship grows into love and she is sure they will marry. A chance meeting on Armistice Day is a passionate interlude which leads to Nan being pregnant. Believing their marriage to be only a formality, Nan steals some money, laid aside by her Mum in case one of her daughters gets herself into trouble, and travels to Ireland and the farm. There she finds that Finn is delirious with fever from the Spanish Influenza brought back by returning soldiers. Denied by his family and with Finn thought to be at death’s door, she ends up in a Catholic Home for unmarried mothers. This place is really the genus of the story, because this isn’t Agatha’s tale, despite her being famous and the one who disappeared.
Meanwhile years later, as the Christie’s marriage implodes and Agatha disappears, we’re taken to a hotel in Yorkshire where Nan goes to stay and take a break before the transition of living with Archie. It’s a spa hotel with healing springs, two sets of newly wed couples and an Inspector Chiltern who has been sent to search for Mrs Christie. From these two time frames, the author cleverly weaves her story with the past gradually catching up with the present. I loved the historical detail of the story as the author uses everything from the decor to the women’s clothes to evoke the 1920s setting. There’s a sumptuousness to these descriptions that contrasts strongly with the earlier poverty, with the Magdalene Laundry section being particularly harrowing. I loved how playful the structure was, not quite revealing it’s genre. Is it a love story, an autobiography, or a detective novel? I also loved going back and forth in time, slowly picking up new threads of the story. I had no idea how they would all come together, but loved the way they did.
Meet The Author
Nina de Gramont’s latest novel, The Christie Affair, will be available In February, 2022. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Of Cats and Men, as well as the novels Gossip of the Starlings and The Last September. She has written several YA novels (Every Little Thing in the World, Meet Me at the River, The Boy I Love, and — under the pen name Marina Gessner — The Distance From Me to You). Nina teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She lives in coastal North Carolina with her daughter and her husband, the writer David Gessner.
Learn more about Nina at http://www.ninadegramont.com