The Orchid House

Written by Lucinda Riley
Review by Waheed Rabbani

Julia Forrester, a renowned concert pianist, returns from the south of France to a coastal village in Norfolk, and her ancestral home in the quadrangle of a nearby estate, Wharton Park. She’s there seeking the solace of her sister; Julia is immensely grief-stricken at the loss of her husband and child in a horrific car accident, details of which are revealed progressively up to the ending.

Julia visits Wharton Park and recalls, as an eleven-year-old, playing the piano at the insistence of a young boy, Kit Crawford. While she’s playing Clair de Lune, the widowed Lady Crawford comes into the drawing room and tells her to stop. Years later, Julia again meets Lord Kit, now the estate’s heir. Afterwards, Kit visits Julia and, surprisingly, presents her with an old diary he’d found in the cottage. Noting that it’s a World War II POW’s account of Singapore’s infamous Changi Jail, he assumes it belonged to Julia’s grandfather, a former gardener at Wharton Park. It seems Kit doesn’t know, and hence cannot inform Julia, that his cousin Lord Crawford, a previous owner of Wharton Park, was also an inmate at Changi Jail. It’s Julia’s grandmother, a former maid, who with the aid of the diary, unravels the secrets of loves, lies and betrayals at the manor. Although in the novel there’s an intertextual reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the plot is much more complex.

While the Malayan war battle scenes and conditions in the Changi Jail are sketchy, the post-war period in Bangkok is presented vividly. Although the writing is much simpler than D. H. Lawrence’s, Lucinda Riley’s simile-less style, with “incredible twists in the tale,” is enjoyable. The novel is a Richard and Judy Book Club selection.