Madeline and her daughter Poppy live with Madeline’s boyfriend Liam O’Grady. A fairy tale romance has turned sour, Madeline lives on the edge wondering when Liam’s mood will next change and fears for her daughter as she becomes more withdrawn in Liam’s presence. After discovering Liam cheating with his boss, Madeline decides enough is enough and leaves him to go and live at Wrea Head Hall the hotel owned by her father. As Madeline makes new friends and starts to discover the history and secrets of Wrea Head Hall she begins to imagine a brighter future but Liam has very different plans.]
Warning this review has spoilers
This debut novel by Lynda Stacey shows great promise. The stories are enjoyable and the characters likeable, she has a good rhythm to her writing and can paint pictures in your mind of her settings. Sadly, whilst there were things to enjoy about this book I also felt parts of the story were rushed, the storylines clashed and it was very easy to see how the book was going to end.
As a fan of the radio two serial drama the Archers fan I was immediately hooked as Stacey laid the foundations for Madeline and Liam’s relationship in the first couple of chapters. I was preparing to settle down to a thrilling but slightly uncomfortable story of manipulation and power struggles reminiscence of the current Helen Archer and Rob Titchener saga. On that front I’m sorry to say House of Secrets did not live up to my expectations.
I think my main issue with this book is that in some ways it feels like two books in one competing for the author’s attention. The Liam O’Grady storyline given more development would make a fantastic suspense filled thriller, kidnapping, torture, murders by the charming Irish man would be a real page turner. In O’Grady Stacey has created a compelling psychopath, the mystery surrounding his parents, the locked up rooms in his house, his long-term obsession with Madeline – these are things great thrillers are made of. The reader is intrigued, we want to know more about him, even if we have to read it from behind a pillow.
The pacing of the book is also off for me. I would expect to have snippets of Liam’s behaviour revealed to us, we should question his involvement in “accidents” unsure of whether he was responsible or is the author showing us a red herring. Instead, too much is laid bare too soon. Madeline suspicious of nothing has an epiphany after one threatening encounter is suddenly putting all the pieces together, it just happens too quickly.
In the other half of the book we have a brilliant romantic mystery, comparable with the works of Kate Morton. The finding of a diary which gives us insight to the lives of those living in the hall during World War II, secret passages and rooms, blossoming relationships, the Wrea Head Hall storyline is thoughtfully developed and like a period drama is a pleasure to get lost in. But again, Stacey reveals too much too quickly. They mystery of the book should be what links Emily Ennis to the current residents of the hall, who was Eddie, what happened to their child and yet quite early on in the story it is revealed that Bandit’s father talks of walking through tunnels and going to see the lady in the hall. It does not take a genius to put the pieces together and in a moment the storyline unravels before us leaving no surprises.
One of the things I did enjoy in this book was the characters Stacey has created and the way she crafts the relationships between them. In particular I felt the portrayal of the reunion between Madeline and her father was perfectly captured. The awkwardness on both sides, the longing for closeness, the bond that even years apart cannot dampen. In Bandit, the hero of the book, Stacey has created a dark and brooding damaged man, the type of man we all dream about, the one that just needs us to fix him. Snippets of his previous army life add depth to him and his link to the hall and the estate gives a spiritual element. Madeline herself is also a character you warm to, you see strength in her particular when it comes to protecting her daughter Poppy. And yet there is also a sense of vulnerability, something that could have more made of it had the story focused more on O’Grady’s manipulation and obsession.
Whilst I found this book to be a clash of stories and styles there is enough in there to make me give future books by Stacey a read.