In 2006, Mary’s life is falling apart. She has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and mental instability asserts itself; she is increasingly estranged from family while succumbing to overwhelming guilt over something that occurred in her past. Back in 1956, Betty Broadbent is also having a rough go of it. Her mother is an alcoholic, a “loose” woman who alternates between mania and depression, leaving the teenaged Betty as the only adult in the house. The two women manage a small inn in a sleepy Cornish fishing village, which is currently seeing a boom in business—their rooms are full up with reporters due to a series of murders attributed to the Cornish Cleaver. One of these reporters holds a special fascination for Betty, and they become close despite the terrible backdrop and a great difference in age and temperament.
The novel successfully plays on rather than suffers from an excess of melodrama. Betty’s relationship with her mother is the main set piece here, a relationship that is complicated at best and hellish at worst. The novel is replete with women on the edge of sanity, and Powell is skillful in her descriptions of how the world appears to these damaged individuals as they try to move through it. The main themes involve secrets, lies, and guilt, and the lifelong consequences attached. Readers may have the murderer pegged long before the denouement and an over-extended epilogue, but the format does offer catharsis for the characters and wraps everything up neatly.