The Sea Gate
It is rare to find a dual-narrative novel in which both strands of the narrative are equally compelling. Often the present-day strand exists as a rather pallid framework for the epic narrative from the past. The Sea Gate is a remarkable exception. Each time the narrative switched from present to past or vice versa, it left me on a cliff edge, reluctant to leave the one sequence while yet eager to join the other.
Both narratives are set in Cornwall, in the same house. The historic narrative is set during WW2, and the narrator is a teenage girl, Olivia, who is left to fend for herself and to look after a younger evacuee when her mother goes off to war. The present-day narrative is told by Olivia’s second cousin, Rebecca, and begins in the traditional way with the mother’s funeral in London and the children emptying her house and uncovering a family secret. This sets Rebecca on the train to Cornwall to sort things out.
Each strand of the narrative is both a love story and a thriller in its own right. Rebecca is named after the title character in Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, and Johnson’s novel echoes Du Maurier in its strong Cornish sense of place as well as the way it builds the feeling of tension and foreboding.
Dual narrative at its very best.