Jessica Mann has written an intriguing, interwoven story of a wartime evacuation and its aftermath, cleverly bridging the class divide between past and present, and exploiting wartime confusion to create a haunting yet dramatic whole. The plot is a series of overlapping themes told from multi perspectives and from various times. These shifts provide a telling testimony to the psychological effects of the Second World War on a group of Cornish characters.
The core story concerns the estate of Goonzoyle, owned by the Hicks family, whose son is called Jonathan (Jon). The groundskeeper, Johns, is away in the army and his daughter Connie has left to work in domestic service. This leaves his young son, Ted in the care of his uncaring stepmother Nancy. Ted is keen to learn all he can about the moneyed life, so when he learns of the Hicks parents' plan to send Jon to Canada to avoid the German invasion which at that time seemed inevitable, he loses no time in forging Nancy's signature and applying to be included. The two boys find themselves passengers on the City of Bernares, en route to Canada. But the ship is torpedoed and the boys cast adrift. Only one of them survives.
Near to Goonzoyle is another estate, owned by the Polhearnes. The two daughters, Lucia and Rosina, have their different ways of dealing with their father, the colonel, who does local good works while being the worst kind of tyrant at home – but the extent of his depravity is not revealed until the end of the book. Rosina escapes from the claustrophobia at home by befriending Delia, the daughter of a Czech widower who, together with his second wife Sheila, is staying at a nearby caravan site. A visit from an eligible young neighbour catalyses events that change everything for these characters, reverberating down the years in ripples of disaster.
Years later, Jessica Mann herself enters the book, researching a book on the City of Bernares disaster (in real life, she published this work of non-fiction as OUT OF HARM'S WAY). Her character "Jessica" in THE MYSTERY WRITER, like the real Jessica, lives in Cornwall, so knows of the families concerned in the old story of the two evacuee boys. By a strange coincidence, she witnesses the suicide of a desperate woman suffering from postnatal depression, who throws herself into the sea. Later, she discovers that the main witness to the tragedy is none other than the surviving boy, by now a famous but reclusive artist.
As the book unfolds, more and more layers of the lives of the principal characters are uncovered. Connie, the sister of Ted Johns who is merely referred to in the war chapters, becomes a particularly vivid creation. My favourite is Rosina, but there are plenty of mysteries, in the story of Delia and her daughter Grace; the mysterious suicide and her true identity; the marriage of Rosina's sister, the heiress Lucia; a visiting American academic who has done perhaps more research than required for comfort; the young hippie Spike and his relationship with Connie; and more.
As well as the plot elements, the author interjects many subtle but telling observations of class structure, the art collection scene and the modern world of email and blogging. I was amazed at how Jessica Mann unerringly keeps all the balls of her varying plots in the air, with a needle's accuracy for social observation and insights into the long, unspoken sadnesses of family relationships. Although I guessed some elements of the mystery that is satisfyingly revealed at the climax of the book, I could not imagine how well it would all be integrated, and with what control a whole set of events, people and times would all be cleverly tied together by the end – together with that nice little punch of psychological insight that seems clear in retrospect but which was obscured during the reading of the book. And in the end, I was so pleased that Rosina managed, in the most part, to transcend her early ordeal to live a pretty satisfying life.