Book Review

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light… Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.

By day, Ivy mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

But once you open a door to the past, can you ever truly close it again?

From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.

I absolutely adored Beth Underdown’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister, and it’s fair to say that I’ve been waiting (not entirely patiently if I’m being completely honest about it) for Beth’s second novel for quite some time.  To say that I was thrilled to receive an advance copy doesn’t even begin to cover it.  But did it live up to my – admittedly high – expectations?  Hell yes it did!  While The Key in the Lock is quite a different novel to Underdown’s debut, I found it to be a gripping read. 

The narrative is split across two separate time frames – 1888 and 1918.  The latter period sees Ivy receiving the heart-breaking news that her son, Tim, has been killed in the Great War in circumstances that aren’t as straightforward as you might think.  This narrative alternates with the events of 1888 where we meet Ivy as a young woman, unwed, and supporting her father in his work as a doctor.  Ivy becomes caught up in the events at Polneath after a fire results in the tragic death of a young boy. 

I really like the character of Ivy.  As a young woman she’s given more freedom that many were at the time, and this has led to a streak of independence that I love to see in a protagonist.  She mostly observes the proprieties of the time, and yet there’s also a sense of adventure and mischief in her that I really enjoyed.  She is intelligent and capable, but lets her heart rule her head at times, particularly when it comes to Edward Tremain – heir to Polneath and father of the young boy, William, who died in the fire.  The 1918 timeline shows a different Ivy – older and wiser, yet still strong-willed and capable.  Losing her son – a strong reminder of the events at Polneath thirty years earlier – is devastating for Ivy and her husband, and with his health deteriorating, Ivy is left managing the household affairs as well as her grief.  And Ivy wants answers. She naturally has questions about Tim’s death, but also elements of her husband’s behaviour that have recently come to light. Her questions lead her back to the events at Polneath thirty years earlier, events that still haunt her and which aren’t entirely resolved.

Featuring the deaths of two sons, The Key in the Lock is a novel that explores grief in its various forms.  It does so sensitively, whilst also highlighting the very human need to understand the hows and whys that come with the death of a loved one, and perhaps especially of children, whatever their age.  To come to terms with Tim’s death, Ivy desperately seeks out those who served with Tim or that knew him, however tangentially.  I think that this rather neatly poses the question of whether ignorance is, in fact, bliss as Ivy learns more about the circumstances that led to her son’s death – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.  William’s death, while saddening, is more a puzzle for Ivy to solve, and this adds a wonderful element of mystery to the novel.  The behaviour of the individuals at Polneath – the Tremains and the servants both – on that night raise many questions that Ivy tries to unravel, with no one being entirely forthcoming or honest about the events and their part in them. 

The Key in the Lock is a cleverly plotted novel with plenty of secrets to be unravelled.  Part historical fiction and part mystery, it also has a wonderful Gothic edge, particularly when it comes to the once grand but now somewhat worse-for-wear Polneath – a house with secrets galore.  I loved the way in which the two timeframes become entwined by more than just the characters, gradually revealing what happened to both Tim and William as the novel progresses.  A fantastic novel, and one that fans of historical fiction will enjoy.

The Key in the Lock is published today (13 January) by Viking in hardback, digital, and audio formats.  Huge thanks to Ellie Hudson and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review ahead of publication.

Disclaimer – I received a copy of this novel from the publisher.  This has in no way influenced my review.

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