This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Head of Zeus for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
It’s 1954 and Magda, Mila, and Janey Prusik are on their way to White Cove, their new home and future guest house. Originally from Poland, Magda and Mila moved to England during World War Two. A disastrous end to a relationship, the cause of which is only hinted at for large sections of the book, forced them out of London and to Cornwall to start a new life. It is isolated but beautiful and is full of promise in Magda’s eyes. Mila is less certain that she wants to be shut away from the world with her unloving, demanding mother, wishing she could be back with her husband. It soon becomes clear that there’s a lot of local legend that causes fear of the house, and many try to dissuade them from staying and trying to make their home hospitable.
We are told the tale from Mila’s perspective, but it is her five year old daughter Janey, alongside her toy rabbit, that steal the show. Janey seems connected to the history of the property, of the mysterious lady so many make reference to. Rabbit also takes on new powers, communicating to Janey secrets that she wouldn’t have had any knowledge of otherwise. Mila is disconcerted when Janey begins drawing the same symbol over and over, that is also mysteriously scratched into her bedroom wall, and near the graveyard in Eglosberyan. What supernatural forces might be acting upon her daughter? The workmen they enlist to help with the renovations have accidents and are reluctant to continue work on the property. With so much superstition surrounding the place and the constant turning up of strange objects and notes, Mila begins to wonder if there is something to the legends.
Aside from the supernatural elements, there is a strong focus on familial relationships. Magda is overbearing and seems unhappy with everything Mila does. She orders her around and terrorises the two of them when she loses her temper. The close contact that is forced upon them causes Mila to begin to dwell on her childhood, with distressing memories coming to the fore which leads their already strained relationship to falter still further. Their cold relationship is in stark contrast to that between Mila and Janey. Although living within the confines of Magda’s demands, we see a lot of love and affection between the two. Mila seems to have a much better understanding of how to nurture a child than her own mother, and she is kind and generous with her. Cowed under a domineering mother, her desire to protect Janey overrides any sense of duty.
The local community are very present in the book. Jack Lord, a kindly but mysterious man, appears early on and forms an affinity with Janey. He is helpful but closed off, seemingly full of secret knowledge. Keziah and Ariadne, a local healer and artist, welcome them warmly, supplying cures and edible treats, but leaving Mila with a sense of unease at their unconventional lifestyle and belief in the supernatural. Casworan Martin, the local vicar, although outwardly friendly leaves her with a sense of discomfort, and when he manoeuvres himself into performing an exorcism on the house she reaches the end of her politeness. The Prusiks are positioned as outsiders, with local residents assuming they will be a certain type of Londoner without any respect for the land and customs.
The opening of the novel is gripping and disturbing, and there’s a generally unsettling mood that hangs over it for the duration, but it doesn’t always grab your attention fully. Some of the mysteries feel easy to unpick, although far from all. The story passes at a gentle pace before ramping up in the final sections with loose ends tied together. Johnson describes the locations in vivid detail so you feel connected to the land. An intriguing novel that explores themes of family, the damage secrets can inflict, and the power of history.