The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

I find it difficult to resist period romances set in country houses, especially when there’s a hint of suspense or a touch of the gothic, and ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ promised all of that.

This is a story is told in retrospect, recalling events that had happened just a few years earlier.

‘I could never have imagined all that would happen in those few short months and how, by the end of them, my life would have altered irrevocably and for ever’

In 1932 Alice was young, and she was holding down a good job while she waited, quite passively, for when ‘her life – her real life – would begin’. That made her susceptible to a charming older man she met at work. She thought that he was the great love of her life, but he seduced and abandoned her.

23201410Alice’s mother was horrified when she found that her daughter was pregnant, but she was practical and she took matters out of Alice’s hands. She arranged for her daughter to stay with an old friend who was the housekeeper and custodian of  Fiercombe Manor, in the depths of Gloucestershire , while she waited to give birth. She told Alice that she must present herself as a widow, whose husband had died in an accident not long after the wedding, and that when the child was born it would be put up for adoption, so that Alice could resume her old life without shame or stigma.

The story was well told, and it rang true. I believed in Alice’s fall, and in her mother’s response. I understood how each of them must have felt

The  old acquaintance in the country – close enough to offer such help but not so close that she might have any idea that the story she was told was untrue – seemed a little  convenient, but the story was engaging and it held such promise.

“Firecombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here, like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough you can almost hear what’s gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it’s as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me.”

When Alice arrives at Fiercombe Manor she is uncomfortable with the story she has to tell, and the unwarranted sympathy that she receives. And at night, when the house is silent, she feels another presence in her room. She wonders if the house is haunted, if that is why the family who own the house but who never visit, if there might be a story to be uncovered.

‘I felt intrigued and almost excited, as though a mystery had presented itself to be solved. Delving into the past was just the sort of distraction I needed to take me away from my own present.’

She asks Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper about the history of the house and about Lady Elizabeth Stanton , the last lady of the manor. Mrs Jelphs had been concerned, helpful and supportive of Alice, she became evasive. Even though she knew that Alice knew that she might have told her a great deal; because years ago she had been Elizabeth’s maid.

Elizabeth’s she recalls the summer of 1898 when she too is awaiting the birth of her child. She lived in Stanton House which was nearby to Fiercombe Manor, but was there no more.  Like Alice, she is pregnant, she is alone and yet not alone, and she is apprehensive about what will happen when her baby is born.

The Girl in the Photograph tells Alice and Elizabeth’s stories, until one of them comes to a  dramatic, shocking end.

The story with beautifully told. The house lived and breathed; the atmosphere, the mystery and intrigue, were pitch perfect; and the gothic overtones were so very well done.

But though I loved Elizabeth’s story, which broke my heart  in the end, I was less taken and less moved by Alice. I found her gauche and self-absorbed, and when I came to the end of the story and thought back to her words in the prologue …. well, that confirmed my feelings..

The writing is gorgeous, the story is readable, and I’m sorry that it doesn’t quite live up to that writing and that it has no more than the writing to set it apart from many other stories like this..

15 responses

  1. Ah, a shame. I find fine writing is always a must for me, and the excerpt you chose about the house had me rubbing my hands in glee, and my one clicky download finger itching in anticipation, but your kindly written summing up has turned me aside. There are far too many magnificent reads vying for attention – would you believe that your initial starter for my Tana French induction now has me on my third outing with her! I’ve gone back to the beginning of her journey.

      • Fleur, I appreciate it! There’s a book I’m supposed to be reading for my online bookclub and I’m afraid (it’s happened 3 times in the last 6 months) I can’t read it – the quality of writing, despite being ‘A Sunday Times best Seller’ is truly appalling. I struggled to page 87 of a near 500 page book feeling like I was dining on a job lot of the worst kind of processed food, made of factory floor sweepings and tasting of nothing except chemicals.

        Our group is split between some lit-ficcers and some who seem to like books which are more blockbustery and airport bookshop (of course, you can also get books which manage both – step forward Ms French!) and the choices offered for us to vote on do vary, and the people who are disappointed when the vote is announced does vary, it’s not only me each month. I HAVE read books i wouldn’t have chosen to read and gained something from them, but I also know when to continue is such torture that no discussion of why can ever be worth it. Needless to say, the offending book will never appear in any review written anywhere by me, as I have no desire to spend further time even thinking about it!

        I’ve just finished Tana French’s first , and am mulling it a bit – interesting to see how she has developed. I shall 4 star it, I wonder, had I read it first, whether I would have 5 starred, rather than 4

  2. I have this on my kindle thanks to netgalley. I can see it will be a book I will get to, but perhaps not immediately. It does sound good and I do like dual narratives which are a popular tool in many novels nowadays.

    • It is by no means a bad book, and lots of people have liked it more than me. Kate Riordan writes beautifully, and I’d certainly be open to reading another of her books if the subject matter appealed.

  3. Such a shame when a book doesn’t live up to your expectations. I often find that with modern novels – the ideas are good but they’re not carried through to the final work. Maybe that’s why I rely on classics a lot! 🙂

    • I suspect I’ve read too many books of this type before – it may well speak more to a younger reader who can identify a little more with Alice. Certainly it’s very accessible, and it could be a good entry point to start that younger reader on an interesting voyage through the world of books.

      • Yes, though I find that the ends of Kate Morton’s books never quite lives up to their promises. And I think that this Kate writes finer prose, and I hope that in the future she might find stronger stories, and settle in one period of time.

  4. I got a bit tired of double narratives a while ago when I read three of the things in quick succession. They can work well, but often the writer seems to be more invested in one than the other, and they get uneven.

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