Bingo square: Shelfie
In 1862, a group of artists gather at a manor house owned by one of their own, Edward Radcliffe, to spend the summer together creating. By the time their stay is over, a young woman is dead and another has disappeared, taking a priceless heirloom with her.
In 2017, Elodie Winslow is working as an archivist in London, when she stumbles upon a satchel and sketchbook belonging to Edward Radcliffe, as well as a photograph of a beautiful young woman. His images remind her of a story her mother used to tell her of a house on the river, and she finds herself looking into the story. She discovers Birchwood Manor and goes looking for more information.
The books zigzags through time, leaving Elodie’s life to join those of others who had lived in the house after Edward. There’s a young Ada Lovegrove, attending a school for girls at Birchwood Manor in 1899. In 1928 it’s Leonard, a young man who lost his brother in the war and who will eventually write a book about the events of the summer of 1862. There’s Juliet and her three children in 1940, fleeing London after losing their husband and father. One of those children is Tip, who will grow up to be Elodie’s great uncle. Then finally it’s back to 1862 and the summer at Birchwood Manor, this time through the eyes of Lucy, Edward’s youngest sister.
And interspersed among all this is the voice of the ghost of Birchwood manor, Birdie Bell. We learn of her birth and life in London before her father gave her to Mrs Mack, a lady who took in unfortunate children and for whom Birdie learned to pickpocket and work other scams. It is while playing a lady, and going by the name of Lily Millington, that Birdie meets Edward and becomes his artist’s model and later lover. It is Lily Millington who disappears that summer.
But we know from the beginning that Birdie is dead, that she has been dead a long time and cannot leave the manor. It is in Lucy’s story that we learn what happened that summer and why Birdie/Lily has not been seen since.
I enjoyed a lot of this book, but I felt the ending let it down somewhat. While it’s nice to get glimpses of the house and its inhabitants throughout the years, Elodie’s story gets lost in it, and it becomes a point where it seems almost unnecessary. In the beginning she is engaged to be married to someone she clearly doesn’t love and isn’t right for, but we don’t get to see how that relationship came about, and we can only assume it ends after what she goes through when she’s at the house. Her mother was a famous cellist and also has ties to the house. There are threads about her mother and father and her mother’s relationship with another musician that are mostly dropped or we’re left to piece together for ourselves once the mystery of Birdie has been solved. The little visits to those other characters are nice but don’t add a huge amount. There are a lot of connections that seem convenient for the story – the tale that has been told in the family about the house, uncle Tip meeting the ghost, Elodie’s mother having been there in the last days of her life and a picture of it existing that Elodie finds…
What happens to Birdie is also horrific and the author doesn’t dwell on it at all but it wouldn’t be out of place in a gothic horror story. It is something to seriously have nightmares about, but her ghost doesn’t talk about it at all. Perhaps it’s a little too ghastly for the tone the author was going for? I thought Lucy’s actions and feelings about it could have been developed more too. There’s another convenient/oft used trope (head injury) that allows some of the events to happen and it all feels a bit unearned.
It’s a nice read but a bit of a muddle overall.