The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, Elizabeth Speller’s second novel, is set in a small English village during the aftermath of the Great War, with the ghosts of the dead haunting the present. At a stately home, which dominates and dictates village life, the Easton family are still trying to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of little Kitty Easton, who vanished in 1911, aged five. Into this unsettled, tense atmosphere steps Laurence Bartram, come to assist in renovations at the house. That things are not as they seem at Easton Deadall is evident from the beginning, and we follow this story through Laurence’s eyes. Lydia, widowed, frail and sensitive, still speaks of Kitty – her daughter – in the present tense. Her troubled brothers-in-law Julian and Patrick are both harbouring secrets, adding to the tension in the house.
The actual chain of events that unravel the mystery of Kitty’s fate is carefully plotted and satisfyingly convoluted, making the novel an engaging read; there are nods to both crime fiction and that book-club mainstay, women’s historical fiction. What elevates the novel is the use of archaeology, architecture and landscape to underpin the narrative. Patrick is an archaeologist, an occupation that acquires greater significance when he and Laurence begin to unpack the story’s central mystery. The house itself echoes the family’s tensions with is unsettling exterior, built ‘as if the Victorian architect had incorporated every architectural style into one building’, adding to the sense that at Easton, true identity is hard to fix, and conflict even part of the bricks and mortar. Lydia has commissioned a planted maze for the garden, a monument to the fallen men of the Great War, and this maze, with its twists and turns, becomes a narrative construct – a clever metaphor for the quest to uncover the truth about the family.
Whilst the maze works as a strong and dominant metaphor for mystery, even the more cursory references to the Great Exhibition and the growth of modern London start to figure and have their own significance. They point to the world’s inexorable thirst for change and the unsuppressed nature of ambition and modernisation. The past can’t live on forever. Laurence is struck by the mazes and labyrinths that he comes across and, finding similarities with the claustrophobic trenches that he fought in, seems threatened by them, apprehensive of the tricks that they can play. But he is reminded by his colleague William that ‘a labyrinth isn’t meant as a puzzle: it’s a journey, a conduit. You enter it and move along to its end’. In order to come to terms with the haunting events of the past, all of the characters in The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton enter their own labyrinth and, like its readers, must find their own way out, at their own pace.
Sophia Brown is an Assistant Editor at Orion Books, working across the Orion and Phoenix paperback imprints. She lives in London and wishes that she could read faster.