Phil Cook, the Group General Manager at Dymocks Carindale and Dymocks Garden City in Queensland, read The Lake House by Kate Morton a few months ago.
To celebrate its publication, we would like to share with you Phil's thoughtful and detailed review of Kate Morton's latest historical saga.
FOR ME, there is something special about an author who grew up on Tambourine Mountain (about an hour from here in the Gold Coast hinterland), who achieved first class honours in Literature while studying at the University of Queensland, and who currently lives at Paddington, one of Brisbane’s inner city suburbs. Kate Morton is one of Australia’s favourite storytellers – in fact she is the most widely read Australian author since Colleen McCullough, with her first four books now published in 38 countries, 26 languages having sold 3 million copies, which makes her roughly the equivalent of Britain’s Lucinda Riley who, like Morton, is adding to her readership with each new book. In Britain, she is the female author who sells more books than everyone except J.K. Rowling. Not bad…
Morton is described variously as a writer of historical and/or romantic fiction with gothic themes; a mystery writer; and an author of ‘sweeping historical sagas’ usually involving family secrets hidden, sometimes, for a generation. I would describe her at 39, still with model-like poise and looks, as the most talented, internationally-selling writer in the country. For mine, she is becoming good enough, and consistent enough in her themes and approach, to not only outsell all her peers, but also be sufficiently adept in the genre for booksellers to be required to set a pocket of her new book in their crime sections as well. She is one of those writers that is quite difficult to specify a genre for, and as Sue Williams from the SMH commented in 2012, bookshops have customers plaguing floor staff with the same question that publishers ask agents, ‘Do you have anything like Kate Morton?’
There is a wonderful story about one of Morton’s first book signing in a German bookshop which has a woman bustling in late for the signing, noisily rearranging her shopping bags - and then finally settling down near the front of the cafe section of the bookshop next to a journalist, just as Morton takes up the microphone to speak. The buzz quietens and Morton begins to speak – through a translator. She is a wonderful Australian girl but can’t speak German! ''What is the name of this writer?'' the woman with the bags asks the journo. ''Kate Morton,'' the journo whispers back. ''She's Australian. Did you come here to see her?'' ''No,'' she replies, bluntly. ''I came here for the cake. They make very good cake here.'' The punch line of the story, I suppose, is that the woman did, after listening, buy a book. It was Secret Keeper.
Things have not always been easy for Morton, who, when she decided to write, had nothing (she is married to a jazz musician) and took work as a waitress at an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant and as a waitress for weddings. Her first book was rejected by every publisher she sent it to, as was, I think it’s correct to say, her second. Even today, if you were to be guided by Goodreads, she has her critics who describe her as formula driven. Truth is, if you don’t follow the American formula, you will find it difficult to be published. Secondly, if she is formula driven, so are all the successful writers across the genres - Lee Child’s Reachers are formula driven (although not the same formula followed by women’s fiction writers); so is Baldacci (145 million copies worth of formula); so was Jacky Collins, who sadly died last week after selling 500 million copies; and so are all of the Australian authors she competes with – Morrissey and Munn. But talent prevails, and now we have, in the making, a natural treasure who could rival McCullough. Wow.
Morton is also criticised by a few nongs for being a touch verbose… Some blockhead on Goodreads even said something like she has a talent for writing a 500 page book which would be better had it been written in 400. But, in part, that is her secret. For the record, the latest book is nearly 600 pages! She is a beautiful writer. It is another thing that sets her apart from the crowd. At times, in fact, she is extraordinarily concise. Her characters are described with economy and beauty. Take one of the key characters in The Lake House, Alice, for example, and Morton’s summation of Alice’s view of her mother:
She remained, for Alice, an untouchable lady, beloved but distant, made brittle in the end by loss, the only person for whom Alice yearned, at times, with the fierce, bitter longing of a wounded child.
Alice’s description of herself is equally economical, and no less beautiful:
She was not otherwise of a needy disposition. Alice had lived alone most of her adult life, a fact of which she was neither proud nor ashamed. She’d had lovers, each of whom had brought their clothes and toothbrushes across the threshold, some of whom had stayed for stretches, but it wasn’t the same thing. She had never extended an official invitation or made the mental transition for ‘my’ house to ‘ours’. It might have been different – Alice had been engaged once – but the Second World War had put paid to the affair as it had so many other things. Life was like that, doors of possibility constantly opening and closing as one blindly made one’s way through.
Finally, to demonstrate this economy, of her childhood mentor, Mr Llewellyn, who she had tried to forget, Alice says:
When Peter had told about his (mentor) Miss Talbot, and the lasting impression she had made on him … Alice had been beset with unusually visceral memories: the smell of the damp river mud, and the plink of the water bugs all around them as they drifted downstream in the old rowing boat discussing their favourite stories. Alice was quite sure she’d not felt such perfect contentment since.
So – to the plot. As with so many books which cross the generations, there are a good number of characters to get to know. The principal protagonist is a police detective, yes – she’s really called Sadie Sparrow – who has got too close to a case and been asked by her supervisor to take some time off. Things don’t look too good for Sadie employment wise, for much of the book, but she does as she is told and heads off down to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather, run it all out of her system and get back to being the good copper that she is. While in Cornwall, though, she stumbles upon a cold case – a missing boy and the scene of a possible crime. With a tenacity befitting an Agatha Christie investigator, she finds, years later, people who remember; theories that haven’t been explored; and answers which could have been had decades ago. Other characters which will engage include Alice Everdane, almost a relic from the cold case seventy years ago; her sister Deborah; her mother Eleanor; Sadie’s grandfather; and a gypsy-like farm-labourer, Ben, who is the major romantic interest in the book.
The plot is thick with secrets – well, one or two in particular - and careful yet complex in construction, as is typical of Morton’s work, and it works. I read – yes the 600 pages - in about 10 hours over two days and in the intervening periods, I couldn’t wait to get back to it! But all of this does not capture Moreton’s skill. Barbara Hoffert explains it best:
The brilliant Chinese-puzzle-box construction of Morton’s novels is hardly accidental, even for someone who loved math at school. As the author explained in a phone interview, “I enjoy structure as much as character, setting, and story line. It’s part of the reward of writing.” In fact, when she finds herself struggling with a new work—when “I can tell that it’s too thin, too obvious, too flat and will read that way unless I make better”—Morton starts tearing apart the text and inserting not colorful detail or newly minted characters but, as she says, “more architecture or framework. That’s where you hang your story.”
Thematically, Moreton juxtaposes notions of morality, with standards set and broken with Alice’s mother, Eleanor and Grandmother, Constance, with passion – always a good formula. Moreton also grapples with family history, loyalty and ambivalent family relationships. She attacks inevitability and sacrifice. The Lake House is also about being true to one’s convictions in the face of moral rightness, and in the true romantic spirit of the book, about, sometimes, casting aside everything that you know is right, and pursuing the passion which tears at you, every minute of every day.
And what does Morton say about her goals with the book and with fiction more generally? Hoffert asked Moreton and her answer explains the breadth of her aspirations:
‘The novel is such a broad church,’ she responds, resisting easy definitions. ‘It can teach, it can open doors, it can be a page-turner. And sometimes it’s all of those things at once.’
The competition for this kind of book this year is fierce, not least from Rachel Johns (The Patterson Girls), Fiona MacIntosh (The Perfumer’s Secret) and Nicole Alexander (Wild Lands) all of whom have written their best books. Add to that marvellous books including a debut, Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, Judy Nunn’s Spirits of the Ghan and Di Morrissey’s Rain Music (I haven’t read this as even booksellers who’ve read all her backlist don’t get to read an advance copy!) – and it’s a literary paradise for Christmas.
If I were the team at Allen and Unwin I would be pushing the publishing button hard on Kate Morton’s The Lake House. It’s a spellbinding new book from a writer who is quickly becoming a master storyteller.