Morton presents a modern-day ghost story begun fifty years ago in an English castle, when the “Mud Man” scales the castle walls, come to life before the horrified eyes of a girl watching from the tower window of Milderhurst Castle. Raymond Blythe’s “The True History of the Mud Man” becomes a classic, yet his personal life is marked with tragedy. Three daughters - Persephone, Seraphina and Juniper - grow up in their father’s massive shadow, hearing the voices of ancestors whispering in the walls of their home.
In World War II, frightened mothers pack their children off to the safety to the country rather than lose them to the randomness of the nightly bombing raids in London. Thus does young Meredith, a stranger, arrive in the village for temporary placement. All the other children have been chosen when Juniper Blythe sweeps in and gathers Meredith into her arms. The girl is enchanted by the magical world of her beautiful benefactress: the castle, the exposure to literature and culture and the sisters who welcome her into their hearts.
Fifty years later, Edie Burchill feels the sting of her mother’s emotional distance, hoping the clue to Meredith’s lack of warmth can be discovered in the detritus of her history. One visit to Milderhurst Castle convinces Edie that the weight her mother carries in her heart took root in this place. With a new edition of Raymond Blythe’s Mud Man about to be released, Edie secures an assignment for the publisher that allows access to the stories of the elderly sisters and the home where they now reside in seclusion. Clearly, Milderhurst Castle is the scene of tragedy, loss and the many threads that bind not only Meredith but her curious daughter as well to an iconic place.
Using old letters, journals and “The True History of the Mud Man,” Edie delves into the troubled family history of the Blythe sisters, the tragedies that have shaped their lives and Meredith’s intimate connection with Juniper’s lost love, Thomas Cahill, who failed to arrive at the castle one rainy night and was never heard from again. There are a number of characters whose pasts must be mined to reveal the truth at the heart of Morton’s story, from young Meredith to each sister and the war-weary Cahill so enamored of Juniper. But there is more: the shadow of a larger-than-life father and the small jealousies of sisters without a mother to guide them.
One of Blythe’s wives jumped to her death from the tower, the other incinerated in a library fire, a hint of the gothic world the sisters inhabit. Bits and pieces are revealed about each sister, whether relevant to the final explanation or simply to explain odd behaviors. My one complaint is the length of this book. At least 250 pages less would not have altered the core story but would have been a great relief to this exhausted reader. The end at least is worth the effort, long-hidden secrets exposed to the light of day. Morton can spin a tale and do it well, but some righteous editing would not be remiss.