In 1927 London the forces of the Great War remain powerful in the lives of Evelyn Gifford, her mother, grandmother and her dear Aunt Prudence, all haphazardly ensconced gloomy Clivedon Hall Gardens. These spinsters are forced to face the inevitable. Although they have yet truly accepted the reality of their situation and seem destined to eke out a life of penury, they are still reeling from the loss of James, Evelyn's beloved brother who was killed in the War. Soon enough Evelyn is feeling the familiar tremor of apprehension because now, as always, will begin the series of events that have bought the telegram telling her James was dead. But life must go on, and Evelyn, who -as the novel opens - is seeking employment as a lawyer and is finding it a tall order in this world where the legal profession is as obstructive as it is dominated by men who want nothing to do with women. Certainly if James was alive his path would have been far smoother with a combination of his own talents and his father's connections.
Then in the small hours with the dream of James still fresh, the arrival from Canada of Meredith and Edmund, her son and James's child both coming unreachably out of time. The house seems to sag under the weight of the new arrivals, the Giffords truly flummoxed at the appearance of this strange woman and her little boy. James had written a fortnight before his death, but he had never mentioned this woman Meredith who is short of money and wants her boy to have an education as much as she wants to love in the house presumably rent free. Telling them she was a nurse on the hospital to which James was sent when he was wounded, the women of Clivedon Hall are positive that he might want a lot of money which they don't have. As the new fragments of James dangled before Evelyn, Meredith soon becomes obtuse, passing judgment on the constrained lives of Meredith and her family. Her manner is very direct, something to which they were not accustomed: `I want you to be on my side, I want a life here, And I want to see Edmund settled in school." It's almost as is she had stage-managed the sequence of events. James's death still a raw wound in her consciousness, the pain made all the more acute by the addition of one small detail, a scrap of paper unspeakably stained upon which James had scrawled Meredith's name.
Eventually finding employment in the service of the wiry-haired Daniel Breen of Breen & Balcombe and his partner Theo Wolfe, Evelyn is given the job of defending Leah Marchant accused of kidnapping her own child in foster care; she couldn't get it back by legal means so she snatched it while it was left outside a butcher's and her two little girls, surrendering them to the care of a children's home who are now refusing to hand them back on the grounds that she is not a fit parent. Beyond Leah's sad story, Evelyn is also given the task of investigating the murder of Stella Wheeler, her husband Stephen the prime suspect. After a picnic Buckinghamshire he left her alone while he had a drink at a local hostelry. Her body was found in the woods nearby and nearby, along with Wheeler's own military gloves and his Webley service revolver. Shot through the heart in a secluded area, Wheeler perhaps hiding his gun and gloves next to her body. Instructed be Breen to uncover Stella's secrets in the Wheeler house and its abandoned contents, she soon discovers a link between Stephen forming part of a firing squad in the War and his wife meeting her death through a shot in the heart.
McMahon gorgeously ties the threads of Evelyn's everyday-life with the social difficulties of a woman of her station along with the ghost of James as he marched off to war. Her heroine is made all the more realistic and poignant by the intricacy of emotional connections: the shocks, and journeys and the new faces of demanding people Leah, Marchant. Meredith herself, poor Stephen Wheeler, in his prison cell, and her new love, the dashing Nicolas Thorne whose smile hovered over her inner eye "like the Cheshire Cat's," the most beautiful man she had seen in years, and Carole, a waitress who worked with Stella, telling Evelyn she stayed out all night and wouldn't say where she'd been. Evelyn engulfed in this new tragedy is determined to defend Wheeler with every last atom of her breath even as she copes with the rusty emotions generated by two stillborn love affairs and the sense that even though James was gone, her life was full enough, love was what she wanted. In McMahon's London of tea rooms and omnibuses, gabled cottages and grand Georgian homes, cobbled alleys, and ladies with silk stocking and hats adorned with pleats and feathers, a bloody war that goes on and on in the minds of the author's characters.
The ghost of the murdered Stella and the gradual unraveling of evidence against Wheeler, along with the dilemmas of Meredith, becomes all too much and Evelyn finds herself caught up in a conflict of conscience torn between her growing attraction to Thorne and her duties to Breen. The mark of a consummate storyteller, McMahon's book is elegant and intimate, retaining an air of constant sophistication while also reveling in the revelations that there are darker forces at work, and the beloved James was not all he seemed to be. Mike Leonard April 2010.