The Woman in the Lake
" It’s fascinating to look back at life centuries ago, to imagine the people and their circumstance, and this novel fleshes them out with an assured storytelling style."
The Woman in the Lake begins with a Prologue in 1765 in the voice of Eustace (Lord Gerard) as he confesses to the murder of a woman by drowning. The reader is only told some of the details. We don’t know who has been drowned, but there is the image of a dead woman wearing a golden gown, floating upside down in the water, and the violent description of Eustace ripping the gown off her body, because of a fear that made him “clumsy.” He is too afraid to dispose of the gown, lest it return to haunt him, “like a reproachful ghost,” Eustace tells us, in his monologue about The Moonrakers and Binks, elements of the murder and of the novel that will be woven into the mystery.
A young woman named Fenella opens the first chapter in 2004 with a group of her schoolmates who visit a residence in “the country” called Lydiard Park on a school outing. Fenella finds herself sequestered in the mansion out of time and context, and alone in a room with the golden gown that seems to materialize from nowhere. Immediately she feels an attraction-repulsion-obsession with the gown. The energy of the golden dress seems to possess her, and she stuffs it in her backpack. So begins a repeat of her former compulsion to steal things.
Told in London in 1760s and the recent present, The Woman in the Lake describes two women with parallel lives: both Fenella and Isabella are in violent, controlling relationships with their husbands. In 1763, the reader meets Isabella in London as a Dr. Baird treats her for her injuries inflicted by her husband Eustace. Using the unspoken ruse of “another fall” Isabella is examined by Dr. Baird, who seems to be a pleasant, accommodating fellow, and who urges Isabella to go to the country for a “change of scene.” The country turns out to be the Lydiard Park residence.
The novel alternates between the voices of modern-day Fenella, Lady Isabella and Constance, who complains about her lot in life as Isabella’s maid. Although hired as a spy for Lord Gerard, Constance doesn’t reveal her true loyalty until the resolution of the story.
Sometime after her grandmother’s death, the gown Fenella left behind at home is returned to her with a warning about its “danger.” Back and forth between the 1760s and recent present, the gown exerts a dark and passionate pressure on whoever is in close proximity to it. Although the reader never understands why, this vague sense of dread repeats itself predictably again and again.
Even Fenella’s secret terror of her husband, Jake, seems weakly contrived for the story. Conveniently, it parallels the abuse Isabella endured at the hands of Eustace. But there’s little evidence of the horrible behavior Jake must have done, behavior that manifests itself in Fenella as a lurking fear that he’s stalking her.
We don’t see any real example of his cruelty or his manipulation except in one scene that doesn’t seem nearly as big or as horrible as it should. There’s a lot of profession here, profession of fear, profession of dread, too much telling that a character is feeling manipulated or powerless. This keeps the reader at a distance.
Hamish Ross, the novel’s romantic interest says, “It would be arrogant to imagine that everything in life could be explained by science, wouldn’t it? Or at least by the science we already know.” It’s a truth that is satisfying to read, but signals that as readers, we are asked to suspend belief in the plausibility of an evil gown, a belief needed to feel the dread ourselves.
The story picks up in 1763 when Constance strikes out to change her life. The novel is now in motion, the set up begins to merge with the mystery and the synergy of the present with the past and builds a complex story that’s gratifying to unravel. It’s here that Cornick works her own mystery writer’s magic, the parallels and interconnectedness of the two separate eras and characters, each on their own trajectory.
A smuggling ring, a mafia-like character, double identities, time travel, subplots and the occasional delightful observation. Here Constance observes a truth about Lord Gerard and expands it to apply to all men: “To my mind it was naïve of Mother to think that a man would ever be satisfied with one woman even if she were the most beautiful in the world. Too many times I had seen them stray simply because they could.”
The novel is well-crafted in its intricacy; at the end it fits together like the pieces of a puzzle, with the unexpected surprise here and there. The two centuries and the lives in each are adeptly woven together into one big story, that if it were true, would be exciting to have discovered 250 years later. But there is too much talking of fears and anxiety and dread lurking around the corner—the reader is always being told what the characters are feeling, rather than being led to feeling these feelings themselves.
As the two modern characters sleuth and research what could have happened 250 years ago, the author lets the reader in on the story’s ending as we discover by dates who lives and who doesn’t survive, but this information sustains the curiosity. As the story unfolds, the reader understands why, piece by piece. It’s fascinating to look back at life centuries ago, to imagine the people and their circumstance, and this novel fleshes them out with an assured storytelling style.