Toward the end of Kate Morton’s magnificent new novel, Homecoming, she writes:
Reading shapes a person. The landscape of books is more real, in some ways, than the one outside the window.
In this absorbing dual timeline story, the landscape Morton creates is tangible, immersive, and transportive. Much of the novel takes place in the weeks around the Christmas of 1959 in the fictional Southern Australian town of Tambilla—and as I read, I was there. I could see the lush foliage, hear the screech of the cockatoos, and experience the loves and losses of those whose stories Morton tells.
If you’ve read my now second favorite story by Morton, The Forgotten Garden, the structure of this novel will feel somewhat familiar. There is a tragedy in the past—in this case the 1959 deaths of a young mother and her children—the truth of which has never really been known. In the present—2018—Jess, a journalist living in London, comes back to Sydney because her beloved grandmother, Nora, has fallen down the stairs and is now hospitalized. Nora, mysteriously, was trying to get to the attic—her housekeeper says Nora had been distressed the last few weeks. Jess wants to know why and therein begins the tale.
This is a layered novel with many characters and plotlines all of which Morton writes effortlessly. In present day, Jess, on the cusp of 40, feels as though her professional and personal life has been a let-down. She was essentially raised by her imperious, loving, and rather controlling grandmother--Jess’s own mother, Polly, lives in Brisbane and rarely speaks to her mother or her daughter. All three, it will turn out, have a copy of Daniel Miller’s As If They Were Asleep—a (fictionalized) book whose chapters tell the story of the Turner Family Tragedy of Christmas Eve, 1959. These embedded chapters along with the sections actually set in the past, teem with the people of Tambilla whose families along with that of the Turners are shaped by long held secrets and bone deep love.
I had a few quibbles--all around the present-day storyline--but I forgot them as soon as I turned the page. Morton doesn't give a resolution to all the issues Jess faces--this actually gives the story a verisimilitude lesser fiction often lacks. Additionally, one of the big reveals of the book is not, I believe, intended to be a surprise. The connection between Jess, Nora, and Polly to Isabel Turner and her family is easy to make out early on in the book. But how that outcome occurred and, even more compellingly, why are things I didn’t see until the final chapters. The enigma at the heart of the novel is complex, heartbreaking, and will satisfy even the most critical mystery reader.
Morton limns the way humans hide truths from both themselves and others. With gorgeous prose, she slowly cracks open how, for better and for worse, families, especially mothers, love. This is a book tinged with sadness and yet, when I turned the last page, I felt elated. The hours I spent in the landscape meticulously portrayed in Homecoming were a gift. Readers of historical fiction will treasure this book.
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