As I revealed in an earlier post, I was ridiculously – nay, off-the-charts-excited – ahead of the publication of this, Kate Morton’s fifth novel. It is tricky to explain exactly what it is that I find so captivating about her books. There is just something about them that transports me back to an earlier, simpler, and less stressful time when reading was merely about escapism and getting entirely lost in a fictional world. She is, for want of a less cliched term, a consummate storyteller.
It is true that Morton’s novels have a formula. The novelist has an academic background and a particular interest in the literary gothic. These tropes underpin all of her stories: the haunting of the past by the present, houses that often seem to be living embodiments of the past and become characters in their own right, long-held family secrets that are about to be dragged into the open.
The Lake House is no exception and has all of the hallmarks of a classic Morton tale. At the very heart of the narrative is a 70-year old family mystery. In 1933, eleven-month-old Theo Edevane went missing from his family’s Cornish summer home – the Lake House of the title – on the night of his parents’ Midsummer party. When the trail goes cold after a few weeks, the Edevanes lock up the house and go back to London, never to return.
Fast-forward to 2003. D.C Sadie Sparrow is taking enforced leave from the police force after becoming too emotionally involved in a high-profile case. She goes to stay with her grandfather, Bertie, in Cornwall and, whilst out running one day, stumbles, quite literally, across the Lake House. Not only is it all locked up, it is exactly how the Edevanes left it.
Sadie soon becomes fixated with the abandoned property and with the unsolved case of the missing Edevane child. At the same time, the reader becomes aware that Theo’s older sister Alice, now a famous crime writer, knows a lot more about her brother’s fate than she has ever been able to reveal. When Sadie contacts her asking for help with the unofficial investigation, Alice’s guilt threatens to overwhelm her. Will she help Sadie and, in doing so, be able to lay the ghosts of her past to rest?
And now for the tough bit: my thoughts. As much as it baffled me utterly, I just didn’t warm to this book. I went through a bit of a ‘it’s not you, it’s me phase’ for a time. Perhaps I had grown jaded and cynical. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood. Perhaps the chest infection I am currently fighting had just knocked me all out of sorts.
But, after mulling it over and seeing a few similar verdicts on Goodreads and elsewhere, I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t just me; that this is a below-par Kate Morton novel. It feels flat and lacking in atmosphere, somehow. Although I was always more than keen to find out what happened in the end, and never considered giving up on the book, I thought that the story really dragged. This was largely due to several lengthy pre-1933 flashbacks that, ultimately, didn’t add all that much to the narrative. To add insult to injury, the explanation was a little bit mad and didn’t make much sense and, after being dragged out for almost 600 pages, the storyline was wrapped up in Scooby Doo-esque fashion with unseemly haste.
The narrative set in 1933 certainly boasted much more compelling characters than its modern-day counterpart. I thought that Morton’s depiction of Theo and Alice’s mother, Eleanor, was insightful and heartrending, showing her writing at its very best. In contrast, the modern-day characters, particularly Sadie, were wholly uninteresting. Furthermore, there was far too much going on in Sadie’s life that I just didn’t care about. All this served to clog the narrative in a frustrating fashion.
All in all, there are flickers of Morton magic here but the light burns relatively dimly. It is worth reading: the central narrative is compelling, even if it is frustrating spun out, oddly structured and, ultimately, a bit daft. Perhaps not the best place to start for readers new to Kate Morton’s work, though.