A great big doorstop of a book, Homecoming by Kate Morton was a work of historical fiction I had to prepare myself for. Some people love the prospect of digging into a giant family saga such as this, but I was hesitant about the length. It’s one of those historical books that switches back and forth from the present day to the past, building suspense simply by delaying the ‘what happened that day’ as much as possible, but what makes this plot even more intricate are the various subplots and people that are combined to create a fulsome picture. No wonder it had to be 540 pages long!
It’s Christmas Eve, 1959 in a small town in Australia, a scorching hot day, and Isabel wants to get her large family out of the house for a picnic. Her husband is travelling abroad again, and she’s struggling to be the doting mother she’s expected to be for her four children, including her youngest, only 6 weeks old. Her sister-in-law Nora is visiting for the holidays, heavily pregnant, who decides to stay home from the picnic. Tragedy strikes, and no one in that small town is ever the same again. Fast forward to December 2018 in London, struggling journalist Jess receives a phone call that her beloved grandmother Nora has fallen down and hurt herself, so Jess rushes home to be with her as she recuperates in the hospital in Australia. When Jess returns home to Sydney Australia, she discovers her grandmother fell when climbing the stairs to her attic, a place previously forbidden to Jess as a child. Nora’s caregivers confirm that she was very agitated in the days leading up to her fall, acting strangely when some strange correspondence from a solicitor up north arrived. Jess is eager to understand why Nora was so intent on climbing up some rickety old steps to a room full of dusty old things, and how she can piece together an old family tragedy that seems to be coming back to haunt them decades later.
Upon retrospection, its the plotting that kept me reading this book, more than the characters. In fact, I would argue the character development was somewhat uneven in this book; I never felt very connected to Jess, arguably the protagonist of the book. And because it’s a mystery to solve that happened so long ago, suspicion is cast amongst many different people; I suspected almost every single person of terrible things at one point or another in this book. The character of Nora is likely the person I felt I got to know the best, although we don’t truly get her perspective – we only hear from her as she’s being written through the interpretation of a fictional writer who pops up about halfway through the book.
There is a book within a book that Jess reads, which adds an element of metafiction in the re-telling of this family’s history. Unlike the giant book within a book that’s included in the Anthony Horowitz novel from a few years ago, this book is shorter, and its broken up throughout the other chapters so we don’t read it straight through. Although there aren’t many connections drawn between Kate Morton and the fictional writer Daniel Miller, attention is drawn to the way they write, and the very process of telling a story that spans generations:
“Jess suspected this inclusion was Miller’s effort to embed aspects of his own research in the text: a way of getting ahead of any pesky reader questions as to how he could possibly be privy to the things he claimed to know.”-p. 205 of Homecoming by Kate Morton, ARC version
There is never any mention of this book being based on a real-life tragedy, but by including these notes and bringing awareness to Morton and Miller’s process of writing, it compels the reader to view this book as more than just a work of entertainment. After I read this passage, I began to view this family tragedy with different eyes, assuming it was based in some reality that Morton drew from. Although there’s not mention of this being based on a true story, I loved how this metafiction element subtly made the book more realistic for me, even if it was entirely based in Morton’s imagination.