I bought A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore in a charity shop recently. I might have thought I was buying Lucinda Riley’s Hothouse Flower, the covers are so similar. I’m a sucker for almost any book with a cover picture of a gate opening onto a garden and in this case the story came up to expectations.
Jude, in her early thirties but already widowed, has an enviable job as a valuer and cataloguer of antiquarian books for a London auction house. A chance phone call to the office sends her to Norfolk to value an eighteenth century collection of scientific books and instruments, assembled by Anthony Wickham, an obsessive amateur astronomer. It happens that Jude’s own family has roots in the area going way back; her gran and sister still live near Rusbrough where Jude is working. Jude finds herself fascinated not only by Wickham’s story but by the tower, known as the folly, he built as an observatory. In the library of the big house she finds the journal of Esther, Anthony’s adopted daughter and collaborator, which adds to the mystery. Who exactly was Esther, what was her relationship with her ‘father’ and why didn’t she inherit the estate as he wished? Did she, an unknown woman, discover a new planet? Why do so many people find the folly a frightening place?
Jude is disturbed to find that her little niece, Summer, is having the same nightmares she herself had as a child and is then even more worried by Summer telling stories which she says she ‘wakes up and knows’; these are the very stories Jude is reading in Esther’s diary. Her gran is obviously worried by something from the past and produces a necklace which had once belonged to a gipsy girl she was friendly with as a child. She wants Jude to find the owner. All the events turn out to be connected.
Poor Jude! She can’t get over the loss of her husband. She worries about her niece and her own troubled relationship with her sister Claire. More complications arise when she is attracted to a local writer but thinks Claire may be too. She’s under pressure from work to get this sale, sympathises with the family dowager who doesn’t want the collection sold, shares the family horror that the new owner of the neighbouring land wants to pull down the folly. Everything that’s happening seems somehow connected to the tower and to the gipsy families which have been returning to the area for centuries. The least successful part of the book I found to be the long extracts from Esther’s journal, used as narrative. It’s very difficult to write in a convincingly eighteenth century style and have you noticed how often in novels these old diarists write about exactly the things the main character wants to know? If anything the mysteries increase as the book progresses and the coincidences pile up.
I see this is Rachel Hore’s fourth novel and no doubt everyone else has discovered her before me. If it has to fit a genre I suppose it’s ‘light romantic’ rather than literary but none the worse for that as it’s very dense. I found A Place of Secrets a gripping mystery and loved it.