An author steadily growing in popularity, Willig uses words in the same way that an accomplished artist uses paints and brushes, dredging from them compositions heavily textured with passion and love. A master at imagery, Willig’s latest hauntingly beautiful, deeply disturbing and richly brocaded novel uses the backdrop of Herne Hill as a place like no other. Teetering between the sun-drenched glory days of summer and the winter days of mistral-biting despair, Herne Hill is a house that has witnessed both great romance and great heartbreak.
American Julia has recently inherited Herne Hall from her great-aunt Regina. Regina is a part of Julia’s “pre-history,” a life that visits Julia only in nightmares and visions of her English mother, who died in a car accident when Julia was a little girl. Julia still recalls the flash of lights, the rain on the windshield, the screech of tires and her own terrible cries. Having recently lost her job as a financial adviser (a victim of the tanking markets and the recession), Julia is encouraged by her father to accept Regina’s unexpected windfall.
Traveling to England to oversee Regina’s estate, Julia meets cousin Natalie, who at first offers tender solicitudes. Julia also connects with Natalie’s friend and potential beau, the handsome gallery owner Nicholas, who offers to help Julia sort out the rooms of Herne House. The house’s exterior looks even more forbidding, shadowy and overgrown with each passing day. Everything changes when Julia stumbles across a painting of Tristan and Iseult, wrapped in brown paper and lying at the back of the wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. The painting is by artist Gavin Thorne, who was part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The work was painted at a time when respectable Victorian matrons didn’t pose for paintings—or at least not paintings that were not portraits.
Julia is the first to notice that the woman in the painting matches the woman in a portrait in Herne Hill’s hallway. A vibrancy to the image draws the eye like a magnet as she sits in Herne Hill’s garden in a tight-wasted dress of deep dark blue. A wildness to her eyes strikes a deep and powerful chord with Julia. She is soon seeking a deep kinship with this unknown woman, who we learn is Imogen Grantham, the tragic wife of Arthur Grantham, who came to Herne Hill from Cornwall. Imogen mistakenly believed that Arthur was her knight in shining armor and the embodiment of all her maiden dreams.
Julia and Nicolas prove to be detectives of sorts, uncovering the mystery behind the Tristan and Iseult painting. Willig tumbles us back to Imogen’s tempestuous love affair with Gavin Thorne, who visited Herne House in the summer of 1849, ostensibly to paint a portrait of Imogen commissioned by Arthur. From the daughter of a vicar to her “enchanted” courtship, to her sterile, unhappy marriage, to cruel, hard Arthur Grantham, who imprisons Imogen in Herne Hill, Willig unfolds these Victorian sections in beautifully melodramatic and heartbreaking tones.
Ensconced in Herne Hill, the only panacea to Imogen’s dreary, lonely existence is Evie, Arthur’s vibrant seven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and Arthur’s sister-in-law Jane Cooper, who possesses a wary hostility towards this newcomer. It’s not surprising that Imogen is swept away by a man whom she has known little more than a month, and on whom all her happiness depends. The air feels suddenly charged and fraught in a landscape where love is the “unspoken rule.” The result is devastating—both for bold-faced Thorne and for tragic, vulnerable Imogen.
Although moving back and forth between time periods is nothing new in contemporary literary fiction, Willig always offers a fresh perspective, unfolding a story that centers on poetry, pageantry. and doomed love. From Imogen’s incessant rustle of petticoats—another indicator of Victorian propriety—to Julia’s suspicions that everything with which she has surrounded herself is nothing more than a cardboard stage set (“I dreamed of gardens and thorns and my mother laughing somewhere just out of reach”), Willig carefully layers her mystery, getting to the heart of enchantment and chance while also juxtaposing the manners and morals of today with those of the Victorian period.
Deep in the studio in the summer house, a handsome painter watches his muse as one might “a caged beast in a menagerie.” In scenes rich in both metaphor and allusion, there’s a quiet and intricate beauty to Thorne’s paintings, and we finally see how they function as metaphors for both the couple’s newly discovered love and the burgeoning attraction exhibited by those who will follow them.