It seems like Philippa Palfrey has everything–a scholarship to Cambridge (or Oxford, I can’t remember which), comfortably-off parents, health and beauty–but she feels that there’s a part of her selfhood missing. She’s always known she was adopted, but not who her birthparents were, or why she has very little memory before the age of eight. She sets out to find the answers, and discovers a legacy of blood and horrible crime. Meanwhile, Norman Scase is a milquetoastish middle-aged, verging on elderly, man, who made a deathbed promise to his wife to hunt down his daughter’s murderers.
The connection between the inept and awkward Norman and the poised Philippa is fairly clear from the above summary, and becomes clear early on in the book. It’s how events unfold, rather than what happens, that’s the main interest–the psychological ramifications of internalising unpleasant truths, of the stories we tell ourselves, of balancing morality and selfishness, of forgiveness and redemption and their potential impossibility.
This is an odd book, not a straightforward detective story like most of James’s work, although there is detection–Philippa tracks down her parents, someone looks for blackmail material, a man with murderous intentions collects clues and shadows characters. I found all of the characters rather unlikeable, but not in an obnoxious sort of way, if that makes sense–I watched them from a distance, with very little sympathy, but not with contempt. Some motivations are never quite made clear, and a rather clever situation of incredible awkwardness, but the unravelling and climax are rather rushed and underwhelming. At least the novel avoids easy answers in the process of not really giving any.