Kate Riordan's novel The girl in the photograph is a great book for a wet weekend. I happily devoured it through a dull weekend in August. Compared to Kate Mosse by the publisher, there are some similarities in that Riordan's book is set in two distinct time periods with events from the earlier time affecting the more recent storyline. Other than that they're pretty different writers, there is a hint of haunting in Riordan's novel, but it's not as obvious as with Kate Mosse.

The more modern part of the novel is set in the early 1930's. When secretary, Alice Eveleigh, falls pregnant by a married man, her horrified parents ship her off to the countryside to have her baby. Alice goes to live at Fiercombe Manor, a medieval manor house that has fallen on hard times. Alice soon realises that Fiercombe is haunted by earlier events not least the grand Victorian manor near the site which has now completely disappeared. Why did this happen? And what could the connection be with Elizabeth Stanton, an earlier owner of the manor, who is almost forgotten? Alice realises that in some way this is connected with her own pregnancy and starts to investigate....

The novel really didn't remind me of Kate Mosse, what it most reminded me of was L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between which felt like an enormous influence on this. This was a rather nice link too to my last read - Mary Beard's SPQR which finally (and rather bizarrely) made sense of an incident in The Go-Between that I'd never quite understood before. From the creepy greenhouse to past secrets that remain unspoken, to the atmosphere of the long hot summer, this could easily be a child of The Go-Between. It's also a bit of a salute to Daphne du Maurier, like Rebecca the ghost of former owners still linger.

What is very different about The girl in the photograph though is Kate Riordan's perceptions of women, their place in society and the way they were treated within that society. Without revealing what actually happens in the novel, post-natal depression, and the psychosis that can sometimes arise in severe cases plays an integral part in the plot. Riordan treats this with great sensitivity. I was both moved by what she describes, and also horrified by the treatment that some women received in the nineteenth and twentieth century around this issue.

It seems odd to say but it's a fun novel to read - on one level it's a fairly standard romance (poor girl meets better-off-boy), there's a good pinch of a ghost story, but there's also some fascinating social commentary, and some decent research into medical and social history. For a light read, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me, and left me thinking long after I'd closed the last page. There's the obligatory happy ending, which I suspect wouldn't have happened in the period itself, but a haunting sadness flows throughout the novel. It's always good when a book proves itself to be so much better than you were expecting.


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