Firecombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here, like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough you can almost hear what's gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it's as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me
The prologue of the book opens in 1936, in a strange and eerie place that the narrator, Alice, has been in for three years. This place, she tells us, has changed her in imaginable ways, and now, three years after her arrival, it is time for her to acknowledge the uhealed rifts in the valley by telling their story.
The novel then journeys back to London in 1932. Alice, unlike most women in her time, has graduated from grammar school. Educated and intelligent, she is bored in her job as a typist and disconnected from her working class parents (in particular her mother), who thinks she has ideas above herself and should quit her job and work in a shop where she can meet a man. On on "particularly silent, stultifying day", the handsome and charming James Elton walks into her office and Alice is in love. James is married but (in a tale as old as time) he is going to leave his wife...until he doesn't, leaving Alice pregnant and alone in a time where being a single mum is not an option. Alice's mum sends Alice to Fiercombe Manor in the countryside, where an old school friend of hers works as a housekeeper. Once Alice has her baby, she will return to London and put it up for adoption.
Fiercombe Manor is an unusual place, where unusual things happen. It's at the bottom of a valley and, as she descends in an old horse-and-carriage driven by the gardener, Ruck, her watch stops working. The motif time as stopped, stilled or moving in unusual ways continues throughout the novel. The housekeeper and her mother's friend, Mrs Jelphs. Mrs Jelphs is also an unusual character: alternately friendly, open, reserved, withdrawn and oddly over-protective. The house seems to have a life of its own, and at night while she sleeps Alice feels presences wandering around. She is convinced there is a secret to be found and, quietly, she starts to investigate the story of the family who own the house but who never, ever go there.
Once Alice arrives at Fiercombe, a new voice is introduced into the novel. Elizabeth was the mistress of Fiercombe 40 years before Alice arrived there, but a different Fiercombe. She lived in Stanton House, an imposing monstrosity built in the Italian style; a house that was so huge it changed the feel of the valley but now gone, leaving no trace. Like Alice, Elizabeth is pregnant and apprehensive about what will come after her baby leaves her body. Linked by the new lives within them and their strange connection to the place in which they live, The Girl in the Photograph tells Alice and Elizabeth's stories, culminating in a dramatic, shocking end.
The Girl in the Photograph has strongly gothic overtones. These are quite overt: Mrs Jelphs and Alice eat in the Red Room and at one stage Alice jokes about having Mr Rochester as a husband. It reminded me a lot of Rebecca, with an overwhelming sense of mystery and intrigue and hidden knowledge. Unfortunately, with this type of storytelling it's a problem if one of the stories is more interesting than the other one - I liked the Elizabeth storyline a lot better than the Alice one, mainly because the Alice one was all in her own head and she just wasn't as interesting as Elizabeth was! I found the book engaging and well-written but quite slow moving. The author really needed to either cut out about 100 pages or really beef up the secondary characters. Using Rebecca again as a model - it is much shorter than The Girl in the Photograph while covering the same sort of area and it therefore packs much more of a punch.
The Girl in the Photograph was interesting and engaging but ultimately too long and slow-moving book: three stars. I will definitely keep an eye out for this author's work in the future.