The Secret of Summerhayes

Written by Merryn Allingham

When Canadian infantry officer Jos Kerrigan stumbles on a lost garden on the Summerhayes estate, where he is billeted, he feels a strange sense of familiarity, as if he has been there before. As the spring of 1944 edges towards summer, however, he finds himself distracted from his training by Bethany Merston, the paid companion of Alice Summer, the last survivor of the family that owns Summerhayes. The attraction is mutual, but Bethany has her own reasons for staying aloof. She is increasingly concerned that someone is playing mind games with her elderly employer in order to undermine her physical and mental health.

This is the sequel to Allingham’s The Buttonmaker’s Daughter and, like many sequels, I felt it suffered a little under the burden of having so much back-story, so there was less room for subtlety in the development of the plot. The ending too struck me as clichéd and predictable. I wasn’t always convinced by some of the historical details. For instance, would walking wounded really be sent back to their former billets rather than to a convalescent hospital with proper medical supervision to prevent infection? Wouldn’t the domestic staff of Alice’s wealthy nephew Gilbert have been conscripted to do some sort of war work? Why has Summerhayes’s vegetable garden been neglected when there was so much propaganda about Digging for Victory? Allingham also clearly subscribes to the myth that more men were killed in WWI than came home (albeit physically and/or mentally scarred), which simply isn’t borne out by statistics.

That said, this is an atmospheric novel with a vividly evoked setting and most of the characterisation is excellent. (Gilbert’s bright but unacademic son Ralph is particularly delightful.) Perhaps I expected too much, but I was a little disappointed after the promise of the previous book.