VIRAGO, £16.99 Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, By Elizabeth Speller

A little girl, and the plot, go missing

Although the mystery in the title is the disappearance of a small girl, Elizabeth Speller's novel has no other connection with the Madeleine McCann case.

It doesn't have much to do with little Kitty Easton, either, for the main theme vanishes for much of the book. Speller's work of non-fiction on the travels of the Emperor Hadrian did the same, but there she had to follow in her subject's footsteps.

Here, the narrative loses track of poor Kitty. It is nevertheless an absorbing read, seen through the eyes of Laurence Bartram, called in to give architectural advice at the country house of Easton Deadall. The First World War has just ended, and Bartram, a former army officer, is still jolted by flashbacks to the trenches. He finds a strange household at Easton: his friend William Bolitho, mutilated in the war, and Bolitho's enigmatic in-laws.

Speller is movingly effective at handling some of the terrible aftermaths of that war, especially the sense of guilt among survivors. One dead member of the Easton family was apparently a hero, another is under the suspicion of cowardice. What can the hero's widow, mother of the missing child, reveal about the family past?

Speller throws in various extraneous elements. William is planning a maze, and this seems to lead irrelevantly to the granddaddy of all mazes, created on Crete by Daedalus. The book briefly turns into a Gothic thriller until the maze theme is dropped and we return to the family story, working itself out chiefly through the interrelationships of the folk at the "big house" with the villagers. But we take another leap away from little Kitty's story with a trip to the British Empire Exhibition.

The denouement treats us to the entertaining description of a classy Chelsea brothel, but an equally important stage in the search for the child is skipped lightly over. The central story regularly gets lost in what are obviously the author's favourite bits, drowning under the weight of research.

Yet there is so much to enjoy. The unravelling of Edwardian hypocrisy, the intricate relationships between the classes – these are sensitively handled, together with the creation of interesting characters. An honest reviewer can only hand on Arthur Quiller-Couch's time-honoured advice to the writer: "Kill your darlings".

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'