11 April 2023

Review: Homecoming by Kate Morton

Homecoming by Kate Morton book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Homecoming by Kate Morton is one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2023. This distinctly Australian historical fiction novel starts strong with a refreshingly different setting - for Morton - on Christmas Eve in 1959. It's here in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia that a terrible tragedy takes place that will reverberate through the Turner family for generations to come.

Meanwhile in the present, Jess returns to Darling House in Sydney after learning her grandmother Nora is in hospital. Jess is estranged from her mother Polly but finds a true crime book at Darling House that covers a family tragedy Jess has never heard of.

Familiar in all of Kate Morton's novels is a sense of connection between the past and present and the haunting of the present by tragic events and people from the past. The author's strength is also in creating homes, manors and mansions with character, and Homecoming had two homes to explore and enjoy.
"You'll see what I mean. It's a house that rewards the curious. Have you explored the nook under the east stairs yet? I used to love playing in there. I dare say it's been lonely all these years, just waiting for a child to claim it as her own." Page 90
Told in a dual narrative style, the nature writing was evocative. I enjoyed mentions of the little township of Hahndorf which reminded me of Devotion by fellow Australian author Hannah Kent set in the same region more than a century earlier. The Australian landscape is wild and beautiful yet also dangerous, as the next excerpt demonstrates:
"The story had given her chills, but of recognition rather than fear. Mythical though the creature might have been, inherent in her children's description was a recognizable truth about this place: the uncomfortable but certain sense that danger, the unknown, was always lurking in the dark spaces 'out there'. This continent was one where beauty and terror were inextricably linked. People died here from thirst if they took a wrong turn. A single spark of fire could grow to consume an entire town. Children who wandered beyond the back fence disappeared into thin air." Page 201
I was reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett earlier this year, and almost mentioned in my review that I was sure the writing style and infectious appreciation of nature in this classic went on to inspire some of my favourite authors in Kate Forsyth and Kate Morton. This thought bubble didn't make the final edit of the review, however I was reminded of it when I saw this quote very early on in Homecoming by Kate Morton:
"Curious, Percy urged Prince onwards up the dense, wooded slope. He felt like a character in a book. He thought of Mary Lennox as she discovered her secret garden." Page 23
Speaking of curiosities, the very next paragraph had a reference to 'Sir Gawain on the lookout for the Green Knight', a direct reference to a late 14th-century chivalric romance in Middle English, that inspired The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro that I read just recently. I think it's remarkable how many books reference other works and how authors can inspire others - sometimes from the grave - to create new stories for eager readers.

If you've skipped ahead or noticed the three star rating I'm giving to this novel, you might be wondering why. My primary issue with Homecoming was the use of a book within a book to provide an insight into the 1959 family tragedy. I usually love this writing technique, however in this particular case, the true crime book 'As If They Were Asleep' by Daniel Miller was unconvincing. Excerpts from the book were included in the body of the novel, however the writing style was not that typically found in this genre of non fiction.
"As Nancy had foreshadowed, some of the scenes were written in close third person, as if Daniel Miller had listened to Nora speak about herself and then, rather than write down the interviews precisely as they'd occurred, with his questions followed by her answers, taken the next step of interpreting the memories, history and personal feelings she'd shared, showing the things she'd described. The resulting scenes spoke of many conversations, not just one or two; there were too many diverse details - some of which Jess recognised from Nora's stories, others that were new to her - to have been gleaned in the formal setting of an initial interview." Page 376
This just didn't work for me. The resulting excerpts from Daniel Miller's book read as pure fiction and not a new style of narrative non fiction.
"The scene also showed the intimate way in which Daniel Miller had come to know his 'characters'." Page 346
This writing technique is ineffective if you need to have the character ponder Daniel's writing style within the novel, and then need Daniel Miller's niece to explain how he composed the 'scenes' from his interviews. The resulting effect and mixed tense was confusing and often took me out of the story. The idea of including a true crime element was definitely on trend, but I wished the author had stuck to her tried and true method of revealing secrets and unveiling long held mysteries.

My other gripe was the length of Homecoming. I love a chunky novel and am not deterred by a hefty page count, but at 640 pages in length, this could have been edited down by at least 100 pages. There were moments of terrific writing like this:
"Her grandmother was being very kind to her, which had the effect, as kindness often does, of making Jess feel terribly sad and lonely." Page 90
Wow, so insightful! However, these reading highlights were diluted by the above concerns.

Before I close out this review, I'll leave you with another quote I enjoyed, that provides insight into two siblings arguing:
"Silence fell. A stalemate had seemingly been reached, and with no further shots fired, the room's thick ambience briefly settled. But there is nothing surer than that two siblings, each nursing a problem, will seek refuge in the familiar comforts of quarreling, and so it was with John and Matilda in that moment." Page 309
Homecoming by Kate Morton contains themes of home and belonging, and explores the often rocky relationships between mothers and daughters.

My Rating:

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