Book #45

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river.

Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?

I’ve spent eight days with this book, which for me equals a long-term relationship with an author. Morton’s intricacy and detail here are monumental, her small hints and subtleties are gorgeous, her writing simply divine.

We begin in 2017 and meet Elodie, an archivist who discovers an old satchel amongst the collections at work, within which is a sketchbook holding a drawing of a house which seems so familiar to her. Determined to understand how both she and the satchel are linked to the house, Elodie embarks on a discovery mission, and Morton propels us through time and back again to unravel the mystery.

Morton’s characters here are beautifully complex, each of them with a heartbreaking backstory, with deep desires and motivations, with questionable actions and decision making skills. She endears each of them to us as we live through tragedy, war, betrayal and fear, spanning through the years as we see patterns and themes emerge.

Her use of multiple voice really won me over here. It was tantalising to hear the voices of many experiencing the house in Birchwood in their own ways. It felt deeply personal, almost voyeuristic, as we saw the characters flick through the house across the passing of time, and yet seeing the house remain an unmovable monolith, never changing, always watching.

Although I enjoyed my eight days in Birchwood, I really did feel this could have been 100 pages shorter without losing any momentum. Morton describes everything down to the smallest leaf in the garden, making me feel she loved the house more than her characters. She also tended towards repeating descriptions of moments, having different characters describe the same thing, yet without any new focus. There just seemed to be a lot of unnecessary passages which could have been removed in favour of engagement.

A wonderful historical mystery, beautifully written, which will chill your bones long after you’ve turned the final page.

“Human beings are curators. Each polishes his or her own favoured memories, arranging them in order to create a narrative that pleases. Some events are repaired and polished for display; others are deemed unworthy and cast aside, shelved below ground in the overflowing storeroom of the mind. There, with any luck, they are promptly forgotten. The process is not dishonest: it is the only way that people can live with themselves and the weight of their experiences.”