Jude Gower spends her days working in the Books and Manuscripts department at Beecham’s London, a UK auctioneer. She researches antiques and coordinates on behalf of her employer between potential customers, but the company hasn’t been doing well lately. When a call meant to go to her associate is intercepted by Jude, it sets into motion a series of unexpected events with strange connection to her past.
The collection of an 18th Century astronomer could prove to be the boon to Beecham’s slump, but it also wields a strange spell over Jude and her family. A mysterious dream plaguing her during her childhood has returned and seems to be affecting her young niece as well. What could the dream possibly have in common with Anthony Wickham or the elusive figure of Esther, his adopted daughter? Perhaps his missing diaries are more important than Jude realizes.
A Place of Secrets is a mild thriller and suspense novel with a touch of mystery to support the overarching ghostly influences surrounding the protagonist and her family. There is also a romantic element that offsets the supernatural ones and brings a personal approach to Jude’s life outside of work and research. With a meandering plot revolving around Esther and Wickham’s journal’s and Jude’s complicated personal life, this book began to feel like it was really two masquerading as one. The result is a novel that’s very long for what it is, but one that enjoys the scenic route.
For the most part, the prose is extremely accessible and light. Hore patiently reveals the next piece of evidence in her elaborate mystery with an even and unrushed pacing. Unrushed is the operative word here. If you aren’t drawn into Jude’s personal life (the rivalry with her sister, her oddball mother, her aging grandmother, her perpetually absent boyfriend), then most of the book will fail to be of interest. This is mainly because all of her research and all the revelatory clues are related to everyone she knows in and around the forests of Norfolk. Even the ominous and beautifully aging Starbrough folly, which draws the Wickham and Bennett families together, turns out to be the focal point for so much of the historical relevance Jude and her Beecham’s team uncovers.
The historical significance of Wickham and his efforts in the field of astronomy are, of course, entirely imagined. Hore drew from other influential events of the past that revolve around relative unknowns making the great discoveries now heralded in the echelons of human history and associated with more popular names such as William Herschel (the man credited with discovering Uranus). The contributions provided by others, especially females, that paved the way for these ultimately world-changing discoveries has not gone unnoticed by Hore. In fact, the astronomy subplot is integral to Esther’s existence and historically, at least in general if not specifics, more true to life than we might otherwise believe.
Hore not only imagines a past where we know of a woman who contributed to the burgeoning scientific frontier (as often happened), but a contemporary world where they are then recognized for those contributions. Women were every bit as significant in some of the greatest discoveries of modern times, but were constrained by societal expectations and archaic gender roles. This only strengthens Hore’s novel, if in sentiment only and empowers the countless number of female pioneers Esther represents.
There are however, a few too many coincidences revealed through the course of the novel to be credible in anything other than fiction. Just when you think there couldn’t be anymore links between Esther and the people Jude has surrounded herself with, Hore adds even more. She adds so many connections and distant relations by the end that I began to lose interest. I found myself predicting the next relation and wondering when Hore would slow the well-paced unravelling and bring some of the more extraneous revelations to an end. I’m almost hesitant to say it began to turn into its own cliché, but in all honesty was too much for me past a certain point.
The astronomy references were interesting, if secondary in some instances to Jude’s personal life (in others, very important). Anthony and Esther’s diaries consumed the narrative. With so much devotion to those characters and their world, I think Hore should have just gone with it and written a Historical Fiction novel. It would have been fascinating! As it is, A Place of Secrets is an even-paced, enjoyable read with characters who are believably flawed, have difficult relationships, and a keen perspective on the unnamed, albeit influential, figures women often were in the past. There were some troubling point of view switching that caught me off guard (two characters, one scene, no clear break in voice), but overall it was a pleasant read. Although the steady revelations threatened to make less of the novel, I found it to be the perfect vacation read: light, easy to read, and with a happy ending.
Release Date: September 2, 2010 in the UK
Reviewed Format: Advance Review Copy provided by Simon & Schuster UK.