I love to read and recommend stories which I consider well written and entertaining in one way or another.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.”
— George R.R. Martin
'The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde' is a novel I chose for the book club of which I've been a member for several years. I found it by chance and because it's set partly in the 50s, my first decade, I was drawn to it. I became enchanted, the rest of the members enjoyed it, and therefore I would like to share it with you.
A book club is a magical thing; it brings together those with similar interest, it becomes a social group of new and progressively long-time friends and it broadens one's reading range. Expand your boundaries! Stretch your imagination! Visit new worlds and meet new characters who might become lifelong friends too!
Incorporated in this review are quotes to inspire reading.
Chelsea and the Cotswolds
The story swings between four young sisters from Chelsea spending a summer holiday with their Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry at Applecote Manor in 1959, and a couple with two daughters who buy Applecote from Sybil 50-odd years later.
The prologue sets the scene to tease our imagination regarding people, place and catastrophic events:
‘Applecote Manor, Cotswolds, August 1959
“We all looked like we killed him now, not just one of us. Sisters. Bonded by blood”.’
Jessie and Will
Leaving us to ponder on that, we are whisked forward over 50 years to Jessie and husband Will who want to leave London’s rat race with his wayward teenage daughter Bella and their toddler daughter Romy.
On viewing Applecote they fall in love with it, all except Bella, a rebellious, unhappy girl, desperately missing her deceased mother, Mandy. Romy enjoys everything and wants to please her big sister. It seems that Bella doesn’t want to know. Jessie fears that Mandy will forever dominate.
They move in, full of expectation for a better family life. A local undercurrent of mystery surrounds the house; people are distant, there's something unsaid about the past.
Jessie suggests that Bella has the ‘attic’ room, as Bella expresses interest in it, albeit macabre;
“Bella feels the atmosphere in the attic room’s wrong…like the past is stuck… or someone… it’s weird.”
Jessie also notices fresh ashes in the grate and recent footprints in the mud of the shed floor.
Applecote and Audrey Wilde
She finally hears the story of Audrey, daughter of the previous aged owner, Sybil, that same aunt of the girls who summered there all those years before. Audrey was 12 when she left the house for a swim in the river. She never returned.
Several times, Jessie sees a woman in a leopard headscarf walking her labradors, but never gets a response to her ‘hello’s. There are hints of the past adding to the mystery, hints referring to Audrey, in the surroundings, in the air and gardens of Applecote. They wrap around Jessie, sometimes giving comfort but also disquieting, with a certain presence;
“feels like the kind of impenetrable garden that might change shape as you walk through it, lead you out of one century into another.” - great descriptions linking events in ’59 and the present. The statues stand damaged round the pool, “like survivors of some terrible natural disaster.”
Is this a reference to Audrey? Not much has changed from when we see the garden with the four sisters in 1959.
Jessie sits there,
“sounds becoming brushstrokes; the neon chatter of birdsong; the blue of the wind; and something else, sepia, weightless child’s footsteps”, then,
“There is no one of course… then something else, something that makes Jessie lean forward, heart racing, and part the slurry of leaves with her fingers to check that the submerged smudge is not a baby bobbing at the bottom of the pool, just a trick of the light.”
Is this a premonition or remnants of Audrey?
Bella goes to a new school, Squirrels Ladies’ College. We go back to the sisters in Chelsea who also attended Squirrels, paid for by Uncle Perry, their father’s older brother and his wife Sybil who then own Applecote, the brothers’ family home.
The sisters spent many a summer holiday at Applecote and enjoyed cousin Audrey’s company. An only child, Audrey was a free spirit, loved to run around with balloons, indulged by her parents and adored by Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot.
The sisters’ part of the story is narrated by Margot, the third daughter. Their mother, Bunny, called ‘Ma’, is eccentric, bohemian, theatrical and adores her girls. Their father died prematurely:
“Ma was pregnant when the engine of Pa’s car cut out on the level crossing, seconds before the 14.07 from Edinburgh screamed down the tracks.” This perfect use of vocabulary holds so much more than ‘his car was hit by a train’.
Ma was in shock, Dot was born early and Ma became ill and withdrawn. Margot looked after Dot during that time so they became close. Margot missed ‘Pa’ terribly - he called her ‘Margot A-go-go’. She also wished she had Flora’s looks. Instead, she has itchy patches behind her knees.
Flora is beautiful, diplomatic and carefree; everyone loves her. Pam is direct and loud. Margot is the clever one. Dot is not fair haired or fair skinned like the others; there is conjecture that she might be Jack’s, Ma’s boyfriend. Ma does admit that possibility later!
Withdrawn in character, “Dot’s strategy is sweet silence; she observes her surroundings carefully before impinging upon them, pushing her true feelings into her pinafore pockets.” What a wonderful example of alliteration and allegory.
Margot thinks about the future and inevitable changes:
“I don’t know who we sisters will be without each other to differentiate us. Take one of us away and we’d all lose our balance, like removing a leg from a kitchen table.”
They are going to Applecote for one more summer, five years after Audrey disappeared, because Ma has asked Sybil to have them while she goes to Morocco, chasing her youth. Then Flora is going to finishing school in Paris. Margot’s thoughts on this are,
‘…she’ll learn to speak fluent French, type, …..things that will help her find a good husband and can then be promptly forgotten, lost in a puff of flour and baby talc.’ Such vivid descriptions to imply the futility of it!
“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install a lovely bookshelf on the wall.”
— Roald Dahl
Effects of Audrey's Disappearance
So they’re off to Applecote… “But what about Audrey?” The question hangs in the air. Margot finds it hard to go back. She can hardly walk up the drive,
“not knowing how to explain that we’re all older, coming of age - I’m wearing black Capri trousers that make me feel like Françoise Sagan - and Audrey is for ever a girl in a blue dress the colour of meadow cornflowers.” She can’t understand why her sisters don’t feel it too.
Sybil is thinner, “twenty years appear to have marked her face, not five” and is frowning “as if she finds it unbearable that we have grown up and Audrey hasn’t….. She doesn’t open her arms to us [like she used to].. but recoils slightly… Everything here swings back to Audrey, the house’s magnetic north.”
The closest to Audrey, Margot most resembles her, as revealed in the pictures on the walls of the staircase.
Uncle Perry is larger than life, maybe hiding something or over-compensating? He doesn’t know how to treat Sybil or anyone any more. There is pain beneath his bravado:
“Peace? You think I can ever find damned peace, Pam?”
Margot contemplates Sybil’s reactions,
“it occurs to me that it must hurt that Ma, a woman who wears her motherhood so lightly, has a reckless surplus of daughters whereas Sybil, who took motherhood so seriously, lost her only one.”
Life at Applecote
So they stay and wait for letters from Ma, meanwhile feeling a bit misplaced but taking advantage of the gardens, the river and the pool.
Stability for all is provided by Moll, the original housekeeper, who has wisdom, is kindly, practical and loyal, and stands as a focal point for past and present. She evokes Margot’s memories in this rich description,
“That voice. That accent. Thick with soft country mud, blackberries picked off a hedge. Other things too. Old songs never written down, only ever sung in this valley. Omens, superstitions, country lore that can’t be explained, only understood.”
It all reflects a local history, part of their heritage.
The only place out of bounds is Audrey’s room. But Margot can’t resist. Sybil finds her in there but doesn’t admonish her, rather she ‘adopts’ her as an Audrey substitute which Margot finds a bit disturbing, as though she’s been lured there!. Sybil lives more and more in a fantasy - the only way she can cope.
Staff at the manor include Billy Waters, the new gardener, a gentle character, as well as Joe Peat, who shows them a photo of his father in a hat by the bridge – there is talk about ‘a man in a hat’ who was a witness to Audrey’s fate. Was it him?
Then we meet the boys, Harry Gore and Tom, from the nearby large house and estate. The girls meet them one hazy summer evening, drink beer and swim and there is instant attraction between Harry and Flora, Tom and Flora, Pam and Harry. Later, a drunken Harry pushes his attentions on Margot and the situation becomes catastrophic. He attacks Margot, then Dot attacks him….. the consequences are immeasurable. Dot loses her glasses in the chaos. The girls decide to keep the events to themselves.
Sybil becomes more lenient the more Margot lets her live out the fantasy of Margot taking Audrey’s place. The sisters remain loyal to each other, defensive, despite any disagreements or rivalry, showing solidarity.
Sybil begins to come out of herself. She even wears her pretty dress and bright red lipstick, though Margot takes exception to this,
“You’re not Ma, my wonderful, maddening, electrical storm of a mother.”
Margot is also upset (as are all the girls) that they’ve received no letters from Ma. Sybil seems to be ignoring the existence of Ma and Margot wonders if that’s why they've received none.
There is a deep philosophical side to this narrative. Moll’s wartime sweetheart was killed in the fighting in France and Moll leaves flowers on the grave of a German pilot who crashed in Applecote’s gardens, wanting to do what she hopes others would have done for her lost love. Margot’s thoughts on life and childhood come to the fore,
“[Moll] will never be the person she would have been if [her sweetheart] had lived. Just like I will never be Margot A-go-go again, without Pa, Sybil….. without Audrey. And I wonder if we’re only our true selves as children, before life starts to go wrong.”
In a similar vein, Margot adds later,
“Houses are never just houses. I’m quite sure of this now… We grow up. We stay the same. We move away but we live forever where we were most alive!”
How many of us can relate to that connection? I know I do.
Perry is a huge, lonely man, disturbed by having to keep out of the way, people thinking he might’ve killed his daughter, feeling no peace and describing his relationship with his ‘swot of a little brother’, then saying ‘…now I miss him every day.’ He’s sorry he didn’t get on better with his brother and he’s fed up with their isolation, almost alienation, from the village.
Margot recognises an attraction to Billy the gardener,
“There is an honesty and sweetness about Billy that is like a balm this morning. I hover. For some reason, I don’t want to leave his side… Something, a feeling, a word I don’t have, flows between us.”
Ma then makes a dramatic entrance to take the girls home.
“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
Relationships, Discoveries and an Accident
Back to the present, Jessie slowly gains some rapport with Bella and, planting in the garden one day, Bella finds some tortoiseshell glasses and decides they’re Audrey’s.
Will finally gets an offer for the business after weeks of having to be back working in London, so he and Jessie can both be at Applecote full time. Bella is left to look after Romy while Jessie and Will go out to celebrate. There’s no one in the house when they return, just footsteps in the snow, and Jessie, in a panic, goes to look for them. There has been an accident for which Bella feels responsible.
The now grown Margot finds Bella walking the lanes and brings her back. Jessie finds it strange that Margot knows a lot about the house.
Then Joe appears at the door with a toy rabbit for Romy and also something he found in the garden - a human bone! Margot relates past events to the police and explains her connections to the house and Sybil. Although Jessie is somewhat annoyed she hadn’t told them before, Margot, Jessie and Bella discuss it all.
The story all falls into place and Bella is delighted she was right in her theories about Audrey’s disappearance.
Jessie and Will are able to talk openly again after the girls’ accident and finally recover their close relationship. Bella also finds her rôle as part of the family. She had built a high wall around herself but now..
“Jessie can peer through and see, for the first time, Bella as she really is, the girl she was, moving behind it, like a streak of brilliant light.”
Jessie and Bella find a parcel within the window seat which provides the answer to another question within the story.
The locals are now being more friendly and sympathetic. The family repair and refresh the garden, make it safer.
Summary and Themes
There is a plausible, satisfactory ending to this story that makes the ‘vanished’ girl ‘unvanished’, ties up loose ends and brings the story full circle, helping Sybil and all of them to find some peace.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a mystery with only a little blood! It grabbed me and led me along through its pages, offering rich and clever writing. There are some outstanding descriptions and great imagery. The reader is drawn in, to the scenes, the emotions and the characters.
Themes explored are:
- relationships - sisters, mothers/daughters, brothers
- deep bonds and identity
- the dynamics of sisters versus being an only child
- importance of respect for place and history
- truth and loyalty
More Examples of Fine Writing
Let me leave you with some of those imaginative and original descriptions which I haven’t already included:
‘dining room… the colour of the inside of a Bramlely apple, a very pale dense green’ - ‘pale’ and ‘dense’ is a strange combination but it works.
Moll ‘bustles back and forth from the kitchen, has a solid, fluttery presence, like a nervous wood pigeon..’ - have you ever noticed wood pigeons crashing about in the trees, never settling quickly?
‘The evening sun is huge, gold as a grapefruit, making the silhouetted figures flow at the edges, rays burst out of their heads.” - the arrival of the boys is so dramatic, you know it is going to lead to something pivotal.
’the past ripping through the fabric of the present’ - some things can’t be ignored.
‘An early September morning, the day summer crumbles into Autumn.’ - this reflects the slow rotting of leaves, changing of time, temperature, seasons.
‘The silence is shouty.’ - to me, this is the silence when no one wants to say what is obvious; it needs filling!
‘Romy… sensing something worrying nibbling at the edges of the conversation.’ - a child’s perception of tension in the atmosphere.
Audrey’s take on Dot:
‘A little insignificant on her own, without the rest of you, like a full stop at the end of a sentence.’ - Dot is different, the youngest, the only one who isn’t fair-haired and fair-skinned, the one who feels left behind, even though she isn’t.
Two descriptions I have already mentioned are deeply significant for me as they reflect my own feelings:
“And I wonder if we’re only our true selves as children, before life starts to go wrong.”
“Houses are never just houses. I’m quite sure of this now… We grow up. We stay the same. We move away but we live forever where we were most alive!”
Sometimes it seems a shame that children lose their innocence and grow up. Audrey never did.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
— Stephen King
© 2022 Ann Carr