The Clockmaker's Daughter
I hadn’t read a Kate Morton novel before picking up The Clockmaker’s Daughter, but her books have been recommended to me numerous times, leading to my having several of them on my shelves. When this novel became available for review I was eager to read it, certain this would give me the impetus to start pulling those novels off my TBR pile. While the book didn’t wow me, I enjoyed it enough that I will definitely be giving the others a try.
They were known as the Magenta Brotherhood, talented young artists who were forging a new style and utilizing innovative techniques to create seductive, expressive images. In 1862, the group decamps to the home of their leader, the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe, for the summer. They descend upon Birchwood Manor filled with zeal, inspiration and bonhomie. By the time the visit has ended, a young lady has been murdered, another has gone missing and a priceless heirloom has vanished. Edward, devastated by this turn of events, lives a desultory existence for the few remaining years of his life.
Elodie Winslow is a young archivist at Stratton, Caldwell & Co., a firm in London. When an unused cloakroom is cleaned out, it leads to the disconcerting discovery of an old leather satchel containing a photograph and an artist’s sketchbook. No one is sure of how long the items have been there, nor is there any record of who they belong to or where they came from. It is the sketchbook which catches Elodie’s eye as she is cataloging the items for the archives. She is convinced the drawing it contains, of a twin-gabled house with a unique weather vane, is the home featured prominently in stories her deceased mother used to tell her.
Her interest completely piqued, Elodie begins to reach out to contacts in an effort to discover the provenance of the sketchbook and picture. Her search will lead to the discovery of a missing masterpiece, and the revelation of a doomed affair between a brilliant young painter and a young clockmaker’s daughter named Birdie Bell.
While Birdie and Elodie are our primary narrators, this is a long tale, spanning over a century and numerous other narrators make appearances. This is a strength in the tale since it allows Ms. Morton’s expertise in crafting elegant, three dimensional characters to shine but it is also a weakness in that it creates a rather glacial pace for the book. After finishing the last page, I wondered why several of the narrators had been included at all. Removing them wouldn’t have affected the plot in the least and their contributions were worth a few paragraphs at most, certainly not the comprehensive look at their lives the taken by the text.
The positive aspect of the length is that Ms. Morton’s prose is absolutely lovely and the imagery she conjures with just a few quick phrases is amazing. I got a wonderful sense of time and place while perusing the story and some of the scenes were so luminous and beguiling I wanted to step into the novel and just breathe them in. I was also intrigued by the slow boiling mystery; it’s not a puzzle that would work at a rapid pace simply because we really need to settle into the characters to understand the nuances of what is going on. The novel becomes increasingly sinister and chilling, as the ordinary slowly becomes something menacing and ominous. Greater momentum would, I think, have taken something from the increasing sense of doom the author was building towards.
Part of that malevolent atmosphere stems from the supernatural aspects of the tale. I love paranormal storylines, so adding an aspect of magic to a novel is normally a positive for me. However, I do I feel strongly that metaphysical elements should be integral to the narrative; they shouldn’t be used simply to explain away poor plotting or used as a ploy to give us backstory. Unfortunately, the paranormal element in this novel is not central to the story but is used because it seemed the author could think of no other way to give us a thorough look at the background information needed to fully appreciate the plot. Sometimes I found that extremely annoying, especially since it allowed for heavy handed use of foreshadowing. As the book went on (and on), rather than piquing my interest the portents began to pique my ire.
With such a large page-count, the author has the space to create multi-layered characters and to an extent she does that here. Each character is created piecemeal so that when you arrive at the end the impression you began with might be different to the one you end with. You might have guesses as to what people are actually like – my intuitions tended to be surprisingly accurate – but you can’t be sure until you finish. The author is fond of the ingenue and all three of her leading ladies – Lucy, Elodie, and Birdie – are variations on that prototype. They are innocent in heart and soul with a certain wisdom gained from being deep thinkers and making much of the opportunities granted them.
The mystery is also multi-layered, and I fear giving anything away by talking too much about it, although I will say I found the truth disturbing and tragic. I blamed one of the characters very deeply for their role in it; I know their intention was to help but their interference undoubtedly turned a bad situation worse. I know the individual felt remorse, but I wasn’t sure they felt it for the right reasons. They certainly retained a conviction of their own cleverness despite the huge price of their blunder.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter turned out to be a thoroughly mixed bag. The fantastic prose, skillful character creation and delightful imagery create a novel that is far above ordinary fare. The misuse of the paranormal elements and the at times pedantic length can be a challenge to push through, however. I would give the novel a cautious recommendation; fans of the author should definitely pick it up as I think they will find much to love within its pages. New readers, willing to tackle a mystery told at a much slower pace than today’s market typically offers, and readers of timeslip novels will find plenty to enjoy if they are willing to take a bit of a slog to get to the end.