On the surface this novel is a classic gothic melodrama about an orphan child, Maud, who is adopted by the three elderly Hawthorne sisters and promised a life filled with happiness, pretty dresses and endless books but instead finds herself becoming a ‘secret child’ forced to take part in fake séances for the rich and heartbroken.
Maud is so beguiled by Hyacinth and the attention and ‘love’ which she gives to her that she is prepared to go along with their plans. After all she has never been the good or the pretty girl. There is a moving scene when her older brother comes to see her and we discover that she was left behind at the orphanage whilst he and her pretty younger sister were adopted by the same family,
‘Hyacinth Hawthorne- she’s the one who chose me – she wanted me. ‘She threw the word at him as if it could knock him flat.
They move to Cape Calypso to reel in the wealthy Mrs Lambert who has lost her daughter Caroline who drowned. It is a stifling existence being hidden away in the cottage with only Muffet, the deaf and mute servant for company. Their friendship develops as Maud begins to teach Muffet how to read and in doing so discovers her deep intelligence. Maud also realises how callously Hyacinth treats Muffet.
Maud takes nightly walks on the beach and rides on the carousel run by the fearsome Rory Hugelick. She meets Mrs Lambert and comes to know and like her. She begins to understand the guilt and pain that she feels, and feels a prickle of conscience as she starts to dream about Caroline.
The event of the séance and its aftermath are truly shocking as Maud discovers who values her life and who does not care if she lives or dies.
The novel is beautifully written in a fast-paced clear prose that has warmth, humour and an unlaboured lyrical quality. The characters are all three dimensional and have a moral ambiguity. There are reasons why people behave the way they do. There are characters who are kind and decent such as Rory and Mrs Lambert but you have to look beyond the surface. As my mother would say ‘handsome is as handsome does.’
This is a great read with psychological depth and one of the best depictions of grooming of a vulnerable child that I have read.
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