In Macmillan's gothic thriller, newly widowed Jocelyn Holt returns from California to her ancestral home of Lake Hall. Virginia, her snobbish, selfish, greedy mother continues to hold court in this 70-year-old relic of the English aristocracy. Grieving for her husband, Chris, Jocelyn's only happiness comes from the time she spends with Ruby, her whip-smart 10-year-old daughter. Born and raised in California, Ruby has thrown herself into English life and is using all the new experiences to fill the gap her father's death has left.
Lake Hall feels stagnant and obsolete, especially in the absence of Jocelyn's father. The whole house makes Jocelyn think of 1987 and Hannah, the nanny who was everything to Jocelyn before Virginia told her that Hannah "had gone." Virginia has aged remarkably well for somebody who has bullied her daughter for her entire life. The story begins when manipulative Virginia launches an unexpected charm offensive targeting Ruby, who is seduced by the vastness of Lake Hall and the surrounding countryside. Jocelyn is terrified that her mother will train her daughter for a life of snobbery and privilege.
We don't yet know how or why Hannah left; however, the story's clever twist sets us up to want to know more. The mystery is wrapped up in Jocelyn's soured memories and the horrible emptiness she suffered the morning Hannah left her life forever. Had her behavior driven Hannah away? In the aftermath, Jocelyn's relationship with her mother spiraled and never recovered. When Ruby discovers human remains--a fractured skull--for the first time there's tangible proof of a sinister current running from Lake Hall's past to its present. Taken over by a cold, visceral fear, Jocelyn wants to get as far away from the skull as possible, while Ruby's morbid fascination with the skull swiftly grows. The person in the lake probably died from something so bad that they're going to haunt the house. When two detectives turn up at Virginia's "medieval manor house," Jocelyn becomes more convinced that the skull is Hannah's.
Macmillan's novel is all about connections reaching back to 1976: to two girls, Linda and Jean, and to newly married Virginia, who as the years pass becomes a desperate, lonely widow, careful to retain authority. For Virginia, the Holt family is an essential part of the local landscape. Virginia is also on a mission to protect Ruby, "an absolutely darling girl full of whimsy and confidence and potential." Utilizing the voices of Virginia, Jocelyn and Detective Andy Wilson, Macmillan unfurls the scattershot intrigue of Hannah's disappearance, the mystery of the body found in the country house lake, and mother/daughter relationships--Jocelyn's love for Ruby and Virginia's desire for Lake Hall to pass someday to Ruby. In an interesting twist, the Holt art collection, a marvel of centuries, comes to play an essential part in the deepening mystery.
Perhaps it is best to give into the police process, the interviews and arrests in a world where the past proves to be such a frustratingly slippery thing. When Hannah turns up at the Hillside Cottage, Virginia is transfixed. She gets a flash of memory of Hannah on the lawn at Lake Hall in a vision that swims before her eyes: "I can't be certain of anything except that I think she has big brown eyes just as Hannah did."
The game begins, escalating far more quickly than Virginia could have ever imagined. As contemptuous, manipulative Hannah ensconces herself in Lake House, Virginia thinks she might even be dangerous. Perhaps this new re-imagined Hannah is a creature from the spirit world, back from the dead? Jocelyn feels the weight of the Holt family's history: "I feel guilt and failure intertwine within me." From Hannah, Virginia and Jocelyn to Detective Wilson, the theme is one of identity and how we try to shed our skins and forget our past experiences. Most disturbing is the fact that Hannah and Virginia might have tampered with Jocelyn's memories. For all this time, Jocelyn has perhaps been living in a fragile house of cards.
As the narrative builds to a chilling, violent ending, the Lake House's uneven stone walls and ancient, mossy roof tiles become an unlikely setting for a story about uncovering secrets from the past and exploring the people who have worked so hard to bury them.