Chasing a fifty-year-old disappearance from the coast of England to the coast of France (1969/1919): British novelist Laura Madeleine’s historical novel of love and loss in the aftermath of WWI reads like a mystery with one of the most satisfying, pulling-it-all-together, endings I can recall.
Madeleine, a former cake baker-turned-novelist, who debuted with The Confectioner’s Tale, blends her culinary skills into tasty prose, using the complex flavors of food to symbolize a story that’s part sweet, bitter, rich, and earthy. Cooking and eating express emptiness, yearning, comfort, happiness, love, family, community, celebration.
To illustrate how the author reveals the intimacy of a romance, the center of this mysterious tale, through the language of food here’s how she describes a special cake:
“It started sweet, tasting of cream and honey, of walking in the afternoon with the one person you could share the colour of the sky with. It became the fields, a grove in late summer, warm aniseed and olive oil and ripening nuts and days spent harvesting, saving for the winter. Finally, it fell into the warm sting of liquor, like a candle flame flickering far into the night, where no words were needed and time itself dissolved in touch of skin on skin.”
“It was love, and it could not be hidden.”
That’s the appetizing prose you’re in store for. Except, the novel didn’t start out with tenderness and joy. For a long time it’s not an idyllic story despite the idyllic cover, southern France byline conjuring nostalgic loveliness, and a sensual prologue.
In fact, Part I takes place in England – in a grittier London suburb, at a stuffy London solicitor’s office, and in the marshy landscape of Norfolk County known as the Fens or Fenland.If it weren’t for the French tip-off I’d have avoided mentioning it altogether not to spoil one iota of this page-turning mystery:
What happened to a nineteen-year-old young woman named Emeline Vane who disappeared fifty years ago in 1919, a year after WWI ended?
Instead, I’d have limited the telling to Bill Perch, a wet-behind-the ears London solicitor about the same age Emeline vanished. His big break comes when he’s assigned her case. His “first real client” is Emeline’s aunt. He’s to prove Emeline is deceased to sell off the Vane’s abandoned property, entangled in British inheritance laws.
Emeline’s story begins when Bill discovers her diary. It starts a year after she’s lost her two older brothers to the war and six weeks since her mother died, the cause a broken heart as much as anything else. Emeline’s elegant voice is full of sorrow.
We’re not the only ones who hear her grief-stricken voice. Bill hears her “whispering in my ear,” tugging at him for his assignment means abandoning her.
The Great War took an enormous toll on Emeline and her once “filled to the seams” family’s country estate – Hallerton House. Its “proximity to the sea and rail” emphasizes the important role railways played in “knitting the country together.” Really two countries for the English residence and a French seaside village are both at the “end of the line.”
Bill isn’t wealthy like this new generation of Vanes or the old ones before the war, but as we get to know this bumbling, good-natured guy, we see he has something far more valuable than money: instinct and principles. Although he seeks the pride of becoming a respected professional, when he stumbles on Emeline’s diary and hears her sad, longing voice he risks it all to search for her. Thus, going against what his future depends on: the improbable hope he can somehow prove Emeline is still alive so she can claim her legacy. He has nothing to go on but his gut.
Something, actually many things, about Emeline’s ghost touches Bill, whose last name is emblematic of his spirit: perched and ready to fly. He is, after all, coming-of-age in the swinging sixties though not like the hippies he meets along the way. Taken in by the private words of a sensitive child who left “bits of coloured paper or a ribbon” and a “tiny ballerina” for the crows circling her formerly grand home, he sets off for a part of coastal Britain he’s never seen to begin his detective journey.
He finds the stone residence mildewed, decayed, and spooky, yet he also finds he responds to the invigorating “smell of salt and mud,” to the openness of the landscape, so freeing. “I don’t want the life I had before, that there’s something else waiting for me,” Bill suddenly realizes. It’s at this juncture that his search for Emeline becomes Bill’s search for himself too.
As the novel moves back and forth in time and place, we see parallels between Emeline and Bill. At Hallerton, he feels alienated from his city roots, a bit lost and overwhelmed; Emeline in French Catalonia bordering Spain is also far from home, lost and overcome too. Both locales are at the “edge of the world” – one overlooking the North Baltic, the other the Mediterranean, waters “more than blue, it’s the promise of blue, brilliant and glimmering.” Sense of two places is strong.
The more Bill reads Emeline’s diary, the more suspenseful the reading becomes because at every turn Bill and the reader have no idea if she’s still alive or not. Nearly everyone thinks she went mad and killed herself back in 1919, maybe threw herself into the sea. No doubt she’d gone mad with grief.
Bill’s path is daunting. He persists for he feels he’s the keeper of Emeline’s secrets. Sharing them, he says, would constitute a “betrayal.” Similarly, unveiling Emeline’s secrets to the reader would betray the reader’s journey. So no spoilers here!
The diary transports Emeline’s soul, and a profound love. We feel the anguish and fullness of her soul and the depth of her desire in metaphorical passages involving food: “We simmer, we roast, we bruise; we squeeze every morsel of flavour from these ingredients, until we have their souls.” And, in another describing a hearty meal: “It is a rich thing, the stomach of the sea, the throat of the mountains, the earth between, bringing them together in an instant of pleasure.”
Stirred throughout are the hauntings of war. “So many things lost and found.” Which circles us back to that powerhouse ending. To long-lost Emeline. Did Bill ever find her?
I recently came across a quote by Henry James, taken from his introduction to the The Aspern Papers. It well-sums up how the reader experiences this poignant novel. As a “palpable imaginable visitable past.”