Reviewed by Emma Crowley
A war-torn summer
A house fallen into ruin
A family broken apart by scandal…
Summer 1944: Bombed out by the blitz, Bethany Merston takes up a post as companion to elderly Alice Summer, last remaining inhabitant of the dilapidated and crumbling Summerhayes estate. Now a shadow of its former glory; most of the rooms have been shut up, the garden is overgrown and the whole place feels as unwelcoming as the family themselves.
Struggling with the realities of war, Alice is plagued by anonymous letters and haunting visions of her old household. At first, Beth tries to convince her it’s all in her mind but soon starts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the aristocratic family’s past.
The Secrets of Summerhayes by Merryn Allingham is more a catch up rather than a direct follow on from The Buttonmaker's Daughter which I had read earlier this year. The two books are loosely connected but anyone reading this new book will not miss out if they have not read the first. In fact the books felt like two separate distinct stories although the feelings of waiting for something to occur are strong in both. Honestly I had expected the story to pick up from where The Buttonmaker's Daughter had finished as the conclusion was so open ended and the reader was left with many unanswered questions so to find this new book set nearly 40 years later was quite a surprise. What surprised me even more was that most of the characters I had become familiar with were absent for one reason or another. I was disappointed to say the least and I hoped that the answers I had wanted would be filled in some how. It took me quite some time to settle in to the story and to re-familiarise myself with the setting. I was also trying to fill in the gaps too quickly where as the author drip fed us information and clues at a slow and random pace. I think this quote sums up perfectly what this book really was about 'Layer after layer of individual stories with no one ever knowing the full picture'. There were numerous characters introduced and ever so slowly their stories were told and eventually things came together.
The Summerhayes estate is not the glorious house and gardens it once was. Years of neglect, the absence of key figures and unsettling past events have taken their toll. With the outbreak of World War Two the house had been requisitioned and now in 1944 the Canadians have arrived and set up camp. There is an overwhelming tension and sense of unease, of terrible things to come pervading throughout the story. A lot of things regarding the army are being kept hush hush but the soldiers know something is afoot and the tides of change are nearly upon them. Bethany (Beth) Merston has not long arrived at the estate and is in the employment of the matriarch Alice who is now in her eighties and not in the best of health either mentally or physically. Her living quarters are confined to a number of small rooms whilst the house she once adored and loved living in with her family is deteriorating around her. Beth once a teacher in London has arrived as Alice's helper and carer. Her school had been bombed out and she has no connection with her own family. In fact Beth never wants to talk about her family or love for that matter. Beth for the most part kept her personal side very close to her chest. Like many other characters in books she had a distinct fear of letting go, of committing and expressing one's feelings. The reader gets the impression that this job in the countryside somewhat takes her away from the horrors of war and keeps her mind occupied so she doesn't have to confront some painful realities.
Beth was by far my favourite character throughout the book. She was kind and caring and took an active interest in everything around her. The more she became aware of Alice's little foibles the more she became an ever more endearing character. She does her best with the meagre rations and the upkeep of the house but she can sense there is a painful story waiting to be uncovered that still affects Alice today. I think the fact I knew what had happened to Alice's family up until the outbreak of World War One somewhat took away from my enjoyment of the story because the element of mystery and suspense was gone for me. Yes I had unanswered questions regarding the ending but all that had come before I knew and it took away from the enjoyment of what I was reading.
I felt there were long periods of nothing much happening in the story bar the daily routine of Beth as she cares for Alice and also tutors Ralph – the son of Alice's nephew Gilbert. There was a lot of repetition that didn't bring the story forward. I felt there would be some action or a little incident and then nothing really for several chapters so much so that you would have forgotten the bits that had made you excited for what was to come and then it all fell flat. Then I stepped back and thought to myself didn't I feel the same when I read The Buttonmaker's Daughter and yes that is where comparisons can be made between the two stories. Both books had major lulls before anything happened and I suppose if I was to view it as being realistic of everyday life at the time that would be the case. Book one had an overwhelming sense of doom about to occur with the outbreak of war and this book the sense of nervousness about the next big hopefully final push.
The story is more or less told from two viewpoints that of Jos Kerrigan, from the Canadian army, and that of Beth. Jos is similar to Beth in a way that he does not want to become entangled with anything as that would mean developing feelings which he believes leads ultimately to loss. As he waits for commands from the higher powers he turns his attention to a small section of the gardens at Summerhayes to bring them back to life as he feels it will bring him comfort and keep his mind occupied. Through this he meets Beth and Ralph and in doing so becomes intertwined in their story. I felt the connection between Jos and Beth and would have hoped it could develop into something more but both were so stubborn and it proved frustrating to read about.
As strange things begin happening at Summerhay,s and Alice becomes ever more confused and believes things that couldn't possibly be true, events take a slightly more sinister turn. I had my suspicions as to what exactly was going on and the reasons for it but I was hoping for something else as it all just seemed a bit too obvious where as I felt it needed something really surprising that would throw the readers off track. To me the mystery surrounding things happening with Alice was all too obvious as there were so many clues. On the other hand there was a revelation around the halfway mark that seemed to come out of nowhere and my first impression was that this was very random and out of place and more convincing, firm evidence was needed. It didn't seem to fit with the overall storyline although the author went on to develop it some more and made it tie in with everything. Still now I am finished the book I am not quite sure that I wanted that to happen. It all seemed to much of a coincidence and put in place just to make things resolve themselves that little bit more easily. It never seemed to sit well with me.
Unfortunately for me The Secrets of Summerhayes wasn't as good as The Buttonmaker's Daughter. I had said before that I would love the books to develop on as a series but I don't hold the same opinion any more. I think everything has been tied up with this book. If the author had continued on maybe a year or two later from the end of the first book it would have made a real difference. I think in skipping forward she missed out on what a lot of readers would be looking for when they begin this book. Maybe the author pinned herself into too tight a corner dismissing forty years when she could have written about the intervening period. I did like Beth and Jos but their story wasn't as riveting as that of previous characters. As a reader coming to this book with no previous knowledge of the first it will read fine but for me it didn't fully work and sadly I wasn't as enthralled as I had expected to be.
Many thanks to HQ via NetGalley for my copy of The Secrets of Summerhayes to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.