Footsteps by Katharine McMahon

Footsteps by Katharine McMahon, Flamingo, pounds 16.99. Helena's husband dies unexpectedly in a climbing accident. A love letter she finds by chance in his belongings suggests he was being unfaithful to her: this discovery thwarts her grief for him, perverting it instead into frustrated jealousy and anger: "I can't be free to be sad. I think about this woman all the time. I can't be simple about his death."

Research on a book about her grandfather, a photographer called Donaldson, leads Helena to her grandmother's Suffolk village to unravel the web of duplicity surrounding her family.

This is the kind of book that makes you wonder why it isn't better than it is. McMahon has a strong storyline and is grappling with the ought-to-be- gripping issues of betrayal, love, incest and death. The Victorian flashbacks, related simultaneously with Helena's story, are oddly static. It's as if McMahon has plundered the stock of Cliched Victorian Characters to populate her novel: there's the delicate, neurotic mother who constantly takes to her bed; the headstrong, intelligent, yet misunderstood young woman who is given to striding about the glowering, windswept landscape; and then there's Donaldson, the arche- type of gauche, inept Victorian male suppression. And - what do you know - Helena's gradual uncovering of the secrets of her forebears leads her on her own path of self-discovery.

It feels disappointingly like a missed opportunity, as if McMahon had the essence of a good novel but just failed to breathe sufficient life into it.

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