Penguin UK| 13 January 2022| 283 pages| e-book| Review copy/4*
I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light…. Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.
By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.
For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.
From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.
The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second book. I read her first book The Witchfinder’s Sister (my review) and enjoyed it immensely, so I had high expectations that I’d enjoy this book too – and it fully met my expectations. It is historical fiction set between two periods 1888 and 1918 in Cornwall.
It captures both time periods, reflecting the society both before and after the First World War showing the changes that the war had made. I loved the slow pace of this book as the secrets surrounding the death of William, the seven year old son of Edward Tremain in 1888 in a fire at Polneath, and that of Ivy’s son, Tim, on the battlefields of France are gradually revealed.
Both stories are shrouded in mystery as the circumstances of how William and Tim died are by no means clear. Ivy is devastated by Tim’s death and is determined to discover what actually happened to him, the letter informing them of his death was not phrased in the normal form of words. She wondered why.
It brought back painful memories of little William’s death. The fire at Polneath had started at night when everyone had gone to bed. William had been in the maid’s room, not his own bedroom when he had died. The postmortem revealed that he had died from asphyxiation by inhaling the smoke. Found under the bed, with paint from the door under William’s fingernails and bruised hands, it appeared that he must have been locked in and yet when he was found the door was standing open. The conclusion was that at some point the door had been locked – and later unlocked by a person or persons unknown.
The events surrounding each death are gradually revealed and there are plenty of secrets that come to light. It is described as a ‘gothic’ novel, but apart from the setting in an old isolated house, that had once been an ancient manor house, I didn’t find it gothic at all. It is a complicated story and at times I had to go back to make sure I’d got the facts right. I really liked Ivy and I liked the way her character is shown to develop with the passage of time. I loved the details about the attitudes to the First World War and the change from the earlier period. This is a novel full of grief and the circumstances surrounding both deaths provide an element of mystery. I loved the way the two time periods were interlocked as the novel progressed. I was fully engaged in it and I’ll be looking out for Beth Underdown’s next book.