Reviewed by Emma Crowley
The war may be over, but for Molly life is still in turmoil. Uprooted from London after the death of her mother, Molly, her father and younger brother Jimmy are starting again in a quiet village in the countryside of Colchester. As summer sets in, the heat is almost as oppressive as the village gossip. Molly dreams of becoming a journalist, finding a voice in the world, but most of the time must act as Jimmy’s carer. At just ten years old he is Molly’s shadow, following her around the village as she falls under the spell of local boy Kit. Kit is clever, funny and a natural-born rebel. Rowing on the waters of the lake with him becomes Molly’s escape from domestic duty. But there is something Kit is not telling Molly.
As the village gossip starts building up with whispers against Molly’s father over missing church funds, everything Molly thought she knew is turned upside down. And on one stormy night, when she sneaks out of the house to try to put things right, Jimmy vanishes. Never to be seen again.
Decades later, Molly is an elderly woman in sheltered housing, still haunted by the disappearance of her brother. When two police officers arrive to say that the remains of a body have been found at the bottom of the lake, it seems like Molly will at long last have her answer . . .
Many thanks to Pan MacMillan via NetGalley for my copy of The Secrets of the Lake to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Liz Trenow’s new novel, The Secrets of the Lake, opens in the spring of 2019 where we meet Molly Goddard. She is old now and living in an assisted living complex but the events of summer 1950 still haunt her. They are difficult to let go and put to bed and who could blame her given the tragic and unknown circumstances. For during that long, hot, endless summer an incident occurred that changed her life. On the night of a terrible storm which had been brewing for days, her beloved brother Johnny disappeared never to be seen or heard from again. The specific details regarding this disappearance have never become crystal clear and even though many years have passed the guilt still eats away at Molly. Could she have done more to prevent the incident? Why does she feel so guilty? How could she have let her beloved brother down who needed her so much, in such a disastrous impactful way? But now new evidence has come to light. Bones have been found in the depths of what was once a lake but has now been cleared for new pipes to be laid by a water company. Could these remains be those of Jimmy having laid there for so many years?
Molly has tried to supress the memories she has of that summer but at times they threaten to overwhelm her. For it was not just Jimmy’s disappearance that meant life changed. It also set her father John, who was a vicar, on a path of self-destruction, the seeds of which had already been sewn thanks to various events in the village connected to his church. My initial impressions were that Molly actually did know what had happened to Jimmy and that she was hiding a major secret. She couldn’t even tell her daughter Bella what had led up to that night. Maybe I was being far too hasty in my judgements given it was only the beginning of the book but the way it was written gave off that impression. I could have been wide off the mark but this only made me even more keen to read on, I was eager to read after the first intriguing chapter to find out was I right?
The story is interspersed with chapters from Molly’s book, The Ugly Dragon. She had later gone on to become a successful children’s novelist but said story had never been published. Instead it had been begun over that fateful summer specifically written for Jimmy. I loved how The Ugly Dragon tied in so beautifully with the overall themes explored in the book and also connected so effortlessly to the stained glass window in the church. It could have been just too mythical, fanciful and over the top but instead it was interwoven into the plot to perfection and added an extra welcome layer to the story. I felt the chapters from Molly’s story offered a sense of lightness when things in her real life got too much and there were lessons to be learned from the dragon’s tale that could be applied in her life and those of the residents of Wormley.
Part Two sees the reader taken back to December 1950, where Molly then aged 14 and her brother and father are newly arrived to the village of Wormley. They are only getting used to life without their mother and John is finding life challenging. Settling into a new parish takes time and his nerves are not the best having suffered working as an army chaplain during WW2. I felt although Molly was so young she, perhaps unbeknownst to herself, took on the role of matriarch of the family. She was constantly on alert, always looking out for both her father and brother. She thought too much of what other grown ups thought of her when she should be living and enjoying her own childhood.
There is nothing specifically mentioned until much later in the book but you get the sense that Jimmy needs to be looked out and cared for. That he views the world differently to others and takes things at face value rather than being able to interpret things in a more meaningful and comprehensive way. Anything that is said he takes it as being literal. Molly is his protector but really should she have been expected to take on that role despite the sibling love she has for him? The love Molly has for Jimmy shines through but as summer approaches a love/infatuation of her own takes over and you sense that at times she tries to break away from the pressures, responsibilities and burdens that she has taken on. Someone that young shouldn’t have to live like this and you wonder did she take on these challenges unnecessarily? Should she just be free to explore this new and interesting friendship that she has found instead of endlessly worrying about her father, his state of mind and the lurking secrets and apprehension that surrounds his new job?
The author does a wonderful job of setting the scene and introducing a whole range of characters. There is Kit, the son of the Waddington’s who live at Wormley Hall. Kit becomes the apple of Molly’s eye and she can never understand why he blows so hot and cold. He intrigues and unsettles her with his arrogance but yet at times he can be sensitive and funny. There are periods of absence when he is way at school and when he returns it is like everything is wonderful but still she can’t fully reach him. His signals are misleading and for a young girl in the first flushes of what she perceives to be love this is confusing and hurtful. Molly can’t stop thinking about him. Everything about him is tinged with excitement and he makes her realise her own life is tame and dull. But the times spent with Kit and his friends near the lake bring fun and laughter to a life that has become increasingly fraught with tension, worry and anxiety. I thought Molly was more aware of adult issues that perhaps she should have been and I questioned whether she regretted taking on the role within her family that she had.
Eli is the gravedigger who lives in a hut in the forest. He is an unusual soul who has suffered trauma in his life, he likes to keep himself to himself and away from those that could cause unnecessary trouble or stress in his life. Molly and Jimmy strike up a friendship with him with perhaps Jimmy finding a kindred soul who really does understand him. But Henry Blackman, the church treasurer who is also a property developer, does not view Eli in the same way and in fact is a character who was very dark right from his introduction. He is an operator, secretive and insidious, and he creates such an unsettled feeling whenever he appears or is mentioned in the book. There are many twists and turns that occur that maybe the reader does not actually see as such as you read through the middle section of the book. But the feeling of apprehension and unease increases as the chapters pass by. The use of the weather really heightens the emotions being felt by the characters as things begin to unravel. The days pass by, the heat intensifies and the outside world becomes stifling and challenging. There is a sense of desperation surrounding Molly as she knows she has taken on an adult role and is trying to fight a cause best left to the adults. Although given her nature she can’t stand by and watch injustice being served on many levels.
Liz Trenow has written a story that draws you in right from the beginning. It’s packed full of mystery and explores a childhood that had the potential to be idyllic but things went out of her control and fell apart despite her efforts to rectify things if at all possible. The last few chapters were tantalising as the truth edges ever closer. There was a sense of ambiguity which could have left readers with so many questions but I think overall the ending was well done. The Secrets of the Lake is well worth a read and I would love if the author continued to write stories of this nature with a good solid storyline, interesting characters and a mystery at its centre.