This is the third Louise Millar novel I have read, and while it doesn’t quite live up to the measured suspense of her previous tales, The Hidden Girl is huge on atmosphere. Millar writes a compelling tale of Londoners Will and Hannah, who must cope with the unexplained appearance of a strange girl. Adding to the sense of suspense is the richly atmospheric setting: the rambling, snow-covered countryside of Suffolk.
Will has long been ambivalent about country life. A hip, curly-haired music producer, Will would rather remain in their London flat. He freely admits he’s being driven by Hannah, who is anxious to settle into their new picturesque, isolated country house, Tornley Hall, a grand, abandoned redbrick Victorian located not far from the bustling center of Ipswich. As Hannah tries to refocus her mind on a sight both familiar and unexpected, she hopes that the purchase of Tornley will give them the sense of fulfillment they both crave. Hannah constantly has to remind herself of the surveyor’s report: “Tornley Hall is a solid house in need of a lot of love.”
The couple have been married for a while but they have no children, an issue that has been consistently eating away at their already fragile relationship. They hope to adopt just as soon as Hannah can make their new house look respectable for local social worker Barbara, who will be visiting the house in about two-weeks’ time. Hannah is convinced that Barbara wants to see “a perfect family home.” Dreaming of Tornley Hall every night for eight months, Hannah has convinced herself that the minute she crosses the threshold, reality will be waiting to pounce again.
Tornley itself is in a terrible state, the inner hall as unrecognizable as the overgrown, unkempt garden. There’s a strange odor, too: an unpalatable mixture of antiseptic and a sickly chemical flower scent mixed with motor oil. The depth of darkness surrounding the estate is astounding. Exhausted Will dreads the commute back to London, spending most of his days resentful for what he had to leave behind. Will eschews the ridiculousness of what he’s let Hannah do—buying this rundown old dump and losing the ability to make anything right for her anymore. Hannah seems possessed, telling Will that she can manage the decoration of Tornley while giving him jobs to do in the evenings.
As the ghostly light shines through the beautiful peacock window onto the damp, shorn grass, Suffolk suffers the worst snowstorm in years. Hannah finds herself isolated and alone, cut off from the outside world. With no mobile phone service, no Internet, and no way to contact disgruntled Will, Hannah is ensconced in a pitch-black house, her nerves frayed while the dream of Tornley dies around her. This place with its long corridors and creaking floors is starting to scare her, along with the intimidating force of her neighbors: Dax, the local handyman; Madeleine, Tiggy and Frank, who all seem to be hiding something sinister. Then a strange, mercurial girl called Elvie unexpectedly turns up at Tornley, proceeding to steal Hannah’s food and sleep on the drawing room floor.
Clearly there’s dirty work afoot, an apoplectic sense of menace that Hannah doesn’t completely understand. Someone is lurking in the shadows. Even Hannah’s sister-in-law, Laurie, is aware of this presence, although she’s strangely not afraid. While the locals inhabit their particular interpretation of the Tornley Estate and the dangers therein, Tiggy and Frank do little to take Hannah’s concerns seriously. Still, Hannah is determined to discover the truth and help beleaguered Elvie. As Dax’s “wolf eyes” seem to devour her at every turn, Hannah fanatically tries to contact Will in London, her fractured phone calls doing little to appease her terror that this effort to remake her marriage and her life has all been for nothing.
Although I liked the novel—and Millar’s prose is always nimble and sure-footed and her characters universally eccentric, fuelling the mysterious activities in Tornley—the story too often falls into the usual clichés endemic to this type of genre. The outcome is as predictable as the tacked-on subplot involving the Tornley family history, which Hannah races against time to solve just as her own life is placed at risk. There’s also a rather ludicrous explanation for the hidden girl’s existence which may or may not motivate the reader to continue to the end. Pushing her way through the isolated days with a strength born of courage and necessity, Hannah considers too late the ramifications of Tornley’s past, unaware that she’s unleashing a dormant but powerful malevolence.
The haunting Suffolk landscape lies in silent, snow-filled contrast to the seething menace of the “hidden girl” and to the gruff, uncommunicative Dax, to innocent Hannah, to poor, distracted Will, and to a disgruntled local farmer who will soon unleash a murderous fury.