This was one of those occasions when the right book landed in my hands at exactly the right time. I was in need of something not too heavy but that would nevertheless engross me enough to remove me utterly from the various stresses that were taking over everyday life. I’d read “The Return of Captain John Emmett” some time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but by one of those little quirks of life I’d never felt an overwhelming need to pick up the second novel – until now. “The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton” features the same central character as “The Return…” but it’s not a sequel in the true sense of the word. There are fleeting references to the events of the previous novel but your enjoyment and understanding would not be in any way hindered if you haven’t read it. (In fact I’m so terrible at recalling even crucial details like characters’ names it was some while before I even realised that the two novels shared a protagonist!) That protagonist is Laurence Bartram, a First World War veteran weighed down by the emotional fallout not only from the conflict itself but also the death of his wife and child and the loss of a subsequent love – possibly the real true love of his life. The year is 1924 and he arrives at Easton Hall with the task of investigating the history of the family church on the Easton estate. However, Laurence quickly becomes drawn into a much more sinister mystery: the unexplained disappearance years before of five year old Kitty Easton, who vanished from her bed never to be seen again. In a house full of extended family, friends and household staff from the local community, everyone has their own idea of what could have happened to the little girl; some hold on to the hope that she could still be alive, many more believe she is dead. But does someone among them possibly know the truth?
The great thing about this book is that the reader is clearly invited to take part in solving the puzzle. The author scatters clues here, there and everywhere for us to collect and mull over – but I have to say that although some of my suspicions were vindicated, I didn’t come close to guessing how the novel was going to conclude. Yet despite the fact that the missing person case runs through the book from beginning to end, it’s only one thread of a tale that encompasses so much more loss than just that of Kitty Easton. This was a period of history during which almost no-one was untouched by the shockwaves of war. The disappearance of a small girl is a clearly visible and tangible loss, but every character here has had something taken away from them, unfairly and permanently: the ability to walk or have a physical relationship, the possibility of pursuing a dream career, the chance to see a child grow up. The village of Easton is a changed place, now only home to women and children, the elderly and infirm and the tiny smattering of men who were lucky enough to make it back alive but who are now irrevocably altered. As with many communities at that time, the loss of so many young and middle-aged men has left a gaping hole. The anguish and emotional paralysis of Kitty’s grieving family are really the reactions of a nation played out in microcosm. In an instant the world has been turned upside down, and the questions everyone is left asking are, what just happened and how do we possibly carry on?
This novel achieves a balance between mystery and social history very cleverly. There were only two slight downsides for me. Firstly, a mass of characters and back stories are introduced very quickly, and initially I found myself flicking back to make sure I had everyone’s relationships correct. Secondly, there are often scenes involving several characters during which the author is so keen to describe everyone’s tiny reactions and expressions in between the dialogue that it becomes a little overwhelming to read. But these are minor quibbles that in no way ruin what I found to be a highly enjoyable book. In fact, I was very sorry when it ended, and that is perhaps the best endorsement of all.