Allen & Unwin. 2023. 640 pp.
ISBN 978 1 7606 3048 5.
Anyone who has read Kate Morton's earlier novels will know that she excels at setting the scene, creating interesting and likable characters, leading you on until you are sure you have guessed the "secret," then, in the end proving that there is more to it than you ever imagined. Homecoming is no exception. It is also, as the publisher's blurb says, "A love letter to her home country," Australia.
The "Prologue," set in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, on New Year's Eve 1959, introduces Isabel Turner, an English woman living with her Australian family on a cattle property known locally as "The Station." Isabel is perched precariously on the top rung of a wooden ladder, attempting to hang bunting in a part of the garden where she knows it will annoy her husband, Thomas, Always, he expected their picnics to take place where Edward Wentworth, the Victorian builder of their grand old stone house, had been photographed among "his similarly bearded" friends, "arranged in elegant recliners," under what had come to be known as "Mr Wentworth's Cedar."
It was unclear to Isabel exactly when she'd first started taking guilty pleasure in causing that small vertical frown line to appear between her husband's brows.
Isabel has lived in this house for 14 years, and she has the children ("proper little Australians") and her carefully planned and tended garden, to keep her busy, but Thomas is frequently away in London. She had been feeling lonely and out-of-sorts recently and sometimes she imagines what it might be like if she could make them all disappear, "say for an hour, maybe a day—a week at the most. Just long enough for her to have some time to think."
Almost a year later, on Christmas Eve, 1959, a local man, Percy Summers, has just spent a hot, exhausting day helping to clear thick bush from a local property to prevent bush-fires. He is trespassing on The Station to get water for his old horse, when he sees Isabel and her children lying on a rug next to the waterhole:
Later, when he was asked about it, as he would be many times over the course of his long, long life, Percy Summers would say truthfully that he'd though they were asleep.
Isabel, Matilda (14), Evie (10), and John (9), however, are dead. An old-fashioned wicker crib hangs from a branch of the willow tree near them, but although Percy knows that Isabel, Mrs Turner, has just had a baby, he is so shocked, and so keen to get help, that he does not think to look in it.. The baby, the police find when they get to the scene, is missing. So, begins the mystery of the unexplained deaths and the missing baby.
Chapter 1 jumps to London, 7 December 2018. Jess has lived in London for twenty years, ever since leaving Sydney for a gap-year. She is a successful journalist, but her latest suggested project has been rejected by her usual editor, and she is finding that freelance work is become increasingly difficult. Her long-term relationship with Matt is over, and "for now, she had neither a job, a boyfriend, nor a child," plus, she had taken over the mortgage of the house she and Matt had been buying together. So, when she receives a phone call telling her that her beloved grandmother, Nora, who has brought her up since she was ten, has fallen down the stairs of her old home and is in hospital, a return to Sydney, and an article on "how it feels like to go home after so long away," seems possible. When the Sydney doctor tells her "Your grandmother's eighty-nine years old... if you're thinking of coming home to see her, I wouldn't leave it any longer," she takes the flight home.
The links between these two ages, and the two stories, begin with Jess's memory of an overheard conversation between Nora and a strange man at the funeral of Nora's brother when Jess was ten. The word "halcyon" had caused her grandmother great distress. Jess, who collected words, had looked it up in an old dictionary she had found in Nora's house, but she still could not understand why this word has so upset Nora. Eventually, she discovers that "Halcyon" is the name of the house Nora's brother, Thomas, owned in the Adelaide Hills.
Back in Sydney, living again in Nora's beautiful old house (which Matt had once described as "a grand lady. Dressed up in an iron lace shawl, looking out over her harbour") Jess begins to discover that there are secrets about Nora's life and about her own early life—things which no-one will tell her, even now. Patrick, who was employed to look after Nora as she began to suffer the effects of ageing, tells Jess that Nora had been disturbed recently by a letter from a lawyer in South Australia, and had been saying something about someone taking her baby. Elderly Mrs Robinson, who has been Nora's housekeeper since she was 16, thinks this might have something to do with Nora's husband, who separated from her shortly after Nora had Polly, Jess's mother.
"I suspect he wanted their life to return to the way it had been before your mother was born," Mrs Robinson said. "He considered that he had been patient and now he wanted his wife back. But motherhood changes people. The world was different for your grandmother once Polly was on the scene. Understandably when you know what she went through to have her. She doted on her, would hardly let her out of her arms, and he became jealous."
Jess's estranged mother is no help in solving these puzzles, and the reason for their estrangement also puzzles Jess.
Gradually, Jess discovers the things which have been kept from her, and the connection between her family and the mysterious murder and kidnapping at "The Station" in the Adelaide Hills. She starts to research the "story" of these events, as it appeared in newspapers at the time and, especially, in a book called As if They Were Asleep, which was written by a man who had "stationed himself in South Australia for the duration of the police investigation and inquest into the Turner deaths."
A number of chapters in Homecoming are written as if taken from this book, and their style is that of a popular family saga as they imaginatively fill in the details of Isabel's life at The Station, picture the lives of her children, chart the ongoing hunt for the missing baby, and report the jalajelip and theories provided by local people, some of whom had worked for Isabel.
Kate Morton's accounts of Jess's progress and frustrations as she searches for answers are inserted between her chapters of As if They Were Asleep; and Homecoming becomes a gripping detective story, with the usual revelations and the occasional false leads, but also a story of the long-lasting effects of family secrets, and, importantly for Morton, a chance to write vividly about Australia, as in her description the Adelaide Hills:
Meanwhile, tall and slender on the upsweep of hills that surrounded their river-run valley, the blue gums stood silent. Streaky skins glinting metallic. They were old and had seen it all before. Long before the houses of stone and timber and iron, before the roads and cars and fences, before the rows of grapevines and apple trees and the cattle in the paddocks. The gums had been there first, weathering the blistering heat and, in turn, the cold wet winter. This was an ancient land, a land of vast extremes.
Altogether, Homecoming is a carefully crafted, well-written book. Jess is a likable character and her attempts to discover more about her past span times and generations to make a fascinating and absorbing story.