In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.
Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river. Why does Birchwood Manor feel so familiar to Elodie? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph? Will she ever give up her secrets?
Told by multiple voices across time, The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a story of murder, mystery, and thievery, of art, love and loss. And flowing through its pages like a river, is the voice of a woman who stands outside time, whose name has been forgotten by history, but who has watched it all unfold: Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.
I don’t know if I have ever – ever – read a more intricately wound, compelling, fascinating story in my life. The Clockmaker’s Daughter, a book that I’ve had a much overdue ARC for for over two years, is far more intertwining, nuanced, and mysterious than I ever expected to give it credit for. I thought I was signing up for a cozy little (although at over 500 pages, not really that little) historical mystery novel in which a girl in the modern day tries to solve a conundrum that took place over one hundred and fifty years ago. Inevitably, I thought her own story would quietly overlap with the mystery, and she’d likely unearth a buried family secret, leading to a reexamination of her own identity. Well, I wouldn’t have necessarily been wrong to assume that, but that description is like saying a mountain is just a big hill. It’s technically right, but also feels very, very wrong.
The majority of complaints that I can see about this novel revolve around the complexity of the plot and the excessive number of characters and timelines that we visit in order to complete the story. While I completely understand where these ideas are coming from, and have my own thoughts on how it probably could have been reorganised to assist the reader in keeping things straight, it wasn’t really a complaint of my own. Yes, there are many characters, and it certainly wasn’t easy keeping them (and their timelines) all straight. But sometimes I get to a point while reading a book where the attempt becomes too overwhelming, I give up even trying to keep characters apart – only for them to neatly unwind themselves later and all make perfect sense. This is the experience I had with this one. My main struggle in this regard wasn’t necessarily about timelines, those were easy enough, but several character names share the same first letter, and I often found myself having to remind myself which person I was inhabiting. And yet, I never once thought that I wished it were any other way, somehow knowing that eventually, it would all make sense.
One thing I would suggest, however, is reading this book rather steadily. I’ve actually picked it up before, and while I found myself enjoying the story, I also found that it does not lend itself well to sporadic reading. Even this second time, there were a few days between readings in which I was otherwise occupied, I came back to it forgetting some of the details, only to make the connections later on in the story, farther on than it was intended. Slow and steady, although once you reach the end, I imagine that you, like I, will likely find yourself unwilling to put it down when answers are nearly within reach. I also found that I did not mind that the various timelines were not chronological – we start the story with Elodie, then jump back to Edward, then forward to Jack and Birdie, then back to Birdie, and so on. It’s such an interesting way to tell the story, and I for one was thoroughly fascinated.
Maybe it’s my own inexperience with general thriller/mystery novels outside of Agatha Christie (although I wouldn’t really classify this book as a thriller, but what do I know), but I thought this book did a really great job with how long I was able to go without putting all the pieces together. I found that with each new detail revealed, it was just enough to yearn for more, but not quite enough to really have that many aha! moments. Maybe it’s because the details are already revealed at the beginning – we know Fanny is dead, Lily has gone AWOL, so has the diamond, and someone’s keeping a secret. None of this really changes, and instead of finding out WHO the murderer was, we are searching for how exactly the events transpire, and also how all the timelines loop together. While I admit that not everything was absolutely perfect – I find myself still wondering how James Strattan fits into the whole deal, as well as (I think) the final location of the diamond – I think that Kate Morton did a beautiful job of revealing all the pieces in such a way that lightbulbs clicked on as the grand image was slowly revealed. I also really liked how not every single story was a large part of the puzzle. Rather, some pieces were large, while others were small. Jack, for example, is a rather small piece of the story. Lucy, while a background character at first glance, holds the central secret and ties the whole mystery together.
While this is my first Kate Morton novel, it certainly won’t be the last. I was a little skeptical at first, and had my own reservations about how the book would turn out. Suffice to say, I have rarely been so wrong. I never expected to love this book this much, and I rarely read a book already looking forward to when I can read it again. I spent several whole days on it, and would happily do so again, without regrets. My only regret now is that it has been sitting on my shelf for over two years, neglected, and I’ve spent that time having not already read it. It has everything I’ve ever loved, all wrapped in one of those intricate little bows that you can’t think a human could have possibly made, but somehow they did. It’s a story about love and about art, about family and about lust, written with only the most beautiful of words in the most stunning of arrangements. Perhaps when I reread this one day I will laugh at how passionate I am in describing it, but for now, I am happy to remain in this state of bliss.
I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.