The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

By  0 Comments

In The Clockmaker’s Daughter, bestselling author Kate Morton spins a tale that spans a period of more than two hundred years. At the center of the story is Birchwood Manor, an enchanted English country estate.

The cast of characters who pass through the house over the years includes a group of influential painters, the child of a family of pickpockets, the students at a private all-girls academy, a scholar and a treasure hunter. There’s also a ghost, a lonely spirit who inhabits the house and is unable to leave until someone solves the mystery of her identity and death.

Edward Radcliffe is a talented young artist who has already made a name for himself in 1860s London. On a visit to the countryside north of London, he falls under the spell of a house built near the banks of the Thames. He impulsively buys Birchwood Manor and invites a group of fellow painters along for a summer retreat away from the city. He also invites his muse, a mysterious young woman who was the model for one of his most inspired works. Lilly Millington is the clockmaker’s daughter of the title, a pickpocket trained by a family of thieves who became the only family she ever knew when her father left to find work in America.

Edward’s and Lilly’s stories are revealed in bits and pieces when Elodie Winslow, a shy archivist in present-day London, discovers an old leather satchel containing a sketchbook and a photo of a beautiful young woman from a bygone era. The sketchbook is filled with drawings of a distinctive house that reminds Elodie of a story from her childhood. She feels compelled to find the house, which turns out to be Birchwood Manor, and to learn more about the woman in the picture.

Elodie is at a crossroads in her life, about to be married to a successful man from a prominent family who sometimes seem more interested in her famous mother than in Elodie herself. Her mother was a renowned cellist who died tragically when Elodie was young. When she discovers that the magical house in her mother’s bedtime stories is a real place, she feels compelled to visit Birchwood Manor to learn more about the woman in the photo and discover how the house is connected to her own past.

Morton uses four different time frames and narrators to explore the mysteries hidden within the walls of Birchwood Manor. Edward Radcliffe’s idyllic summer at Birchwood Manor ends abruptly when his fiancé is killed under mysterious circumstances. He returns to London and never returns. Years later, his younger sister, Lucy, decides to repurpose Birchwood as a boarding school for girls. She befriends a young girl named Ada who is sent to the school for a proper English education after spending her early years in India. Ada is bullied by the other girls and involved in a tragic accident that leads to the school’s closing.

Another narrative thread takes place in 1940, when Birchwood Manor serves as a refuge for young mother Julia when she flees London with her three children to escape the bombings of World War II. She’s a journalist for a London paper and focuses her weekly columns on life in a small country town during the war years, leaving some clues about Birchwood to those who come after.
In the present day, there are rumors that an heirloom diamond pendant lies hidden within the walls of the manor house. The loss of the pendant is tied to the mysterious circumstances that caused Edward Radcliffe to abandon the property. Although Birchwood Manor has become a museum open to the public, a treasure hunter named Jack gets permission to stay in the house under the pretext of doing historical research.

Kate Morton delivers the same compelling storytelling in The Clockmaker’s Daughter that has made her previous works so popular. I was lucky to be able to read this book relatively quickly. Putting it aside for more than a few days would have made it difficult to pick up the threads of the story and sort out the identities of the characters. It’s like a complex jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered across the decades.

Jack, the treasure hunter, meets Elodie, the archivist, when she comes to Birchwood Manor on her own quest. Each wants to solve the puzzle that the house has kept secret for so long, but they can only succeed by sharing the parts of the mystery they’ve each solved. In the end, Morton has made us care very deeply that they do. For readers who are up to the challenge of this intricately plotted novel that touches on themes of childhood, love, art and the passage of time, the resolution of the mystery is richly rewarding. ■