With most of her action unfolding in Devon and later sections in Fez, Morocco, Webb so cleverly melds modern-day England to the search for the lost works of an artist that the lessons of loyalty--and one family--extend
far beyond the generations. Without losing any of her talent for writing lovely, descriptive prose, Webb brings into the modern world an unforgiving examination of the aftereffects of teenage love in a moment of crisis.
Central to the story is the devastating pain and frustration that torments gallery-owner Zach Gilchrist. A modern-day professional, Zach struggles to maintain his trust in a world full of external and internal forces. After six years of marriage, Zach’s life seems to have crumbled into nothing, adding to this sense of searing dissolution. The only thing helping to enthuse Zach is his outline for a book on artist Charles Aubrey. Currently in his possession are several drawings by Aubrey: one is of a face that conjures up images of boys’ school cricket matches,
and another is a rough pencil sketch called “Mitzy Picking.”
On the hunt for clues to the identity of the boy called "Dennis," Zach travels to Blacknowle, a tiny farming village on the coast of Devon. In this isolated place, Aubrey and his bohemian family were rumored to have caused a bit of a scandal “back the day.” A man who came for the summer, Aubrey is said to have made his money drawing “saucy pictures of young girls.” He was also rumored to have lived “in sin” with a foreign mistress then died at what most have considered to be the height of his artistic prowess.
Here in Blacknowle, in an isolated house called The Watch on the edge of a rocky peninsula, Zach meets Dimity Hatcher, Aubrey’s legendary muse. Faced with the reality that Dimity is indeed alive and well and still haunted by the ghost of Aubrey (“she could feel him behind her, his eyes upon her, as if all her senses had come alive’), Zach is able to finally produce a complete picture from the shattered pieces of Aubrey's life--from his time in London
and his upbringing in Sussex to his avant-garde morals and to his relationship with his glamorous Moroccan wife, Celeste, and his two children, Delphine and Elodie.
As Dimity's connection to Aubrey unfolds, Webb is remarkably able to telegraph a rainbow of emotions inside her characters' minds. That Dimity has found away to mitigate the turmoil is not surprising as she recounts her young life with her cruel, scornful mother, and then with Charles and his assumed love and devotion. From the first time Charles sketches her and makes her figure on a page, he takes her inside of him, recreating her and possessing her. With pictures singing like “joyful songs” in Dimity’s head, she recounts to Zach the heady days
of 1937, though Zach knows there’s something that she's not telling him: “he could feel it in his gut; an ill-defined but unmistakable sense of something amiss.”
Tumbling us into the world from both Dimity and Zach’s vantage points, Webb
places Dimity at the center of her gorgeously written collapsing universe. Fear
ever wraps its heavy arms around Dimity: she’s haunted by beautiful Celeste, the rooms of The Watch, and her mother. Dimity remembers the roots she never thought of trying to break until Charles Aubrey and his family arrived and gave her an idea of what the world looked like beyond little Blacknowle. Equally desperate, Zach falls into the arms of a tough, resolute local sheep farmer. Zach’s connection to Hannah Brock provides the story’s ebb and flow, increasing this sense of his having to decide where and whom he will love.
Amid forgotten art and family secrets, Webb’s citric sun shines blue overhead.
Later in Morocco, the roses and jasmine do battle with the resinous scent of cypress trees, almost like the sea-battered pines of Dorset. Attempting to shield herself from the self-harm the past afforded her, Dimity is left behind with the agony of memory and of abandonment. Much is resolved for Zach, however. Dimity’s long-held secrets create a vivid new angle of reflection for him, of roads not yet taken beyond the spaghetti bowl of his conflicting motives and snarled opportunities.