In brief: It’s 1933 and Alice has got herself in Trouble. Her mother sends her to an old friend at Fiercombe Manor, to be hidden out of sight. But Alice becomes captivated by a photo of Elizabeth, who seems to have disappeared years ago. What happened?
The good: Interesting story, delightful narrator in Julia Barrie.
The not-so-good: Listening to a story with Gothic tones in the height of Australian summer was a little odd.
Why I chose it: Received an eARC from Penguin Australia but my eReader didn’t like it, so I bought the audiobook.
Duration: 15 hours 47 minutes (book is 448 pages)
Narrator: Julia Barrie
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
The Girl in the Photograph (also known as Fiercombe Manor in the US) has many of the elements I look for in a potential read – historical setting, Gothic undertones, bit of a mystery and strong female characters. Unfortunately the galley I received did not like my eReader and the print was too small to read, even at the largest setting. So I turned to the audiobook version instead and got a delightful narration from Julia Barrie who makes Fiercombe Manor sound eerie even when my surroundings were a bright blue sunny sky and heat.
The Girl in the Photograph also has a bit of a dual narrative going on between Alice, a young girl who has got in trouble (with a married man no less) and Elizabeth, a former mistress of the newly built Stanton House. Both Elizabeth and Stanton House are long disappeared with nobody knowing (or willing to say) what has happened of them. But Alice, enchanted by a picture of Elizabeth and then her diary, starts to actively ask questions. There is very little else to do at Fiercombe Manor except a bit of cleaning and ruminating on her bad luck to fall pregnant. Mrs Jelphs, an old friend of Alice’s mother, is reluctant to share any information and Alice must sneak around to try to find out more. But in her sleuthing, she finds more links with Elizabeth than she thought possible…
Despite the eerie description above, The Girl in the Photograph is partly uplifting in its conclusion. I really wanted Alice, who was my favourite character, to have some redemption after the cold hearted plotting of her mother to hide her away while pregnant. As the novel unfolded, you could see her accepting her ‘sin’ of unmarried sex and being ready to take on the world (and her mother) despite that 1930s society would shun her unless kept totally secret. Occasionally the audio made it a bit difficult to know whose narrative it was, Alice or Elizabeth, but I soon worked it out as the two characters used different language. Elizabeth was initially more guarded, although in her diary she poured out her soul in a very non-Victorian fashion (which was essential to the plot and looking at how the stigma of postpartum psychosis/depression has changed since the late 1890s).
The book also has a somewhat supernatural feel from the long gone Elizabeth telling her story through her diary to Alice. When Alice goes hunting for the long lost baby things up the unused stairs, the tone was particularly chilly. You just knew something bad was going to happen. And as for the finale – it was equally heartbreaking and heart-warming, keeping some of the Gothic element but also allowing a ray of sunshine through too. I quite enjoyed the listen – it took me a while (less traffic on the road equals less listening time) but it was worth it. Julia Barrie’s narration was just right for Alice’s voice, practical yet with a hint of youthful fancy. I’d happily listen to another audiobook by her and also read/listen to another Kate Riordan novel (I think one might be on the cards for 2016). The Girl in the Photograph is part historical fiction, part Gothic thriller and part reflection on family, yet it’s the details in setting and atmosphere that make it stand out.