The Secret of Birchwood Manor

Birchwood Manor is one of the trickiest “characters” in Kate Morton’s new novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter”, which was published in the fall of 2018. The presence of this gothic old estate permeates the novel with its secrets and mysteries. And few writers do these kind of secrets and mysteries as well as Kate Morton. The novel spans time from the 1850s with Birdie’s early life as a clockmaker’s daughter to contemporary times with Elodie as a London archivist working to unlock the secrets of the house and her family’s surprising part in its history. As with all Morton’s books, it is a complex and rich narrative spanning time and characters. It’s a huge puzzle of different time periods concentrated in the years of 1862, the turn of the 20th century and decade of World War 1, the war years of the mid 1940s and contemporary times. Morton weaves the lives of Birdie aka Lily, Lucy, Juliet and Elodie around Birchwood Manor, an old leather satchel, a photograph of a beautiful young woman and a missing 23-carat blue diamond known as the Radcliffe Blue. Morton is up to the challenge of this haunting tale.

The summer of 1862 has Edward Radcliffe, Lucy’s older brother and Lily’s lover, painting with artist friends at the house. A terrible tragedy ensues leaving a woman dead, another woman missing and the Radcliffe Blue gone. So the puzzle is fitting these pieces together over the next 150 years as the house becomes different things to different people. Lucy, brilliant Lucy, turns it into a girls boarding school and then into a museum after she inherits it from Edward. Juliet, Elodie’s grandmother brings her children here after their London home is bombed during the blitz of World War 2, which is why Elodie’s great uncle Tip is visibly disturbed when she shows him the picture of the beautiful young woman taken years earlier, yet he admits to nothing. She gets no information from him except the location of the house. Elodie leaves immediately for the estate to investigate her family’s history to this mysterious house.

The novel is full of beautiful phrases and descriptions. Morton loves old atmospheric houses that can accommodate her bewitching and enchanting plots and characters. Birchwood Manor does not disappoint. Edward writes in 1861, “I have bought a house. A rather charming house, which although not grand is of elegant proportions. It sits like a humble, dignified bird, within its own bend of the river, on the edge of the woods, by a small but perfectly formed village. It is a craftsman’s house, with bespoke joinery and thoughtful details. However, the house’s beauty is not defined by aesthetic measures alone. It is a house that emerged from the land on which it sits…there is something else within the house that draws me, something old and essential and not entirely of this world. It has called to me for a long time, you see, for my new house and I are not strangers.”

I understand the audiobook of this novel is beautifully done, however I cannot imagine following the plot line by listening only. There are many voices and time periods. The voice of Birdie/Lily seems to be the main current in the flow. Her sections are not dated because she exists outside time and space, but she connects the plot as it builds towards the revealing of Birchwood Manor’s long-held secret.

Enjoy watching Kate Morton’s introduction to this rewarding read.

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