Book review: The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb
The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

Steeping yourself in a Katherine Webb novel always offers so much more than an intriguing mystery…

The Durham University graduate, whose debut The Legacy won the popular vote for the TV Book Club Summer Read of 2010, is now on her seventh novel and her rich, sophisticated and descriptive prose becomes more impressive with each outing.

Not content with bringing us gripping, atmospheric stories set principally against the lush backdrop of the English countryside during the last century, Webb has the gift to make her characters come alive through the most vivid detail and elegant writing.

From The Unseen, set in a sleepy Berkshire village, to a wild corner of the Dorset coast featured in A Half Forgotten Song, these books reveal Webb’s acute eye for the human condition and exhibit the ethereal beauty of her work.

In The Hiding Places, an evocative tale of secrets, friendship, betrayal and grief, Webb transports us to 1922 and the idyllic, sleepy village of Slaughterford in Wiltshire, a tight-knit place of superstitious people ‘prone to seeing signs and portents everywhere.’

The local doctor’s daughter, 15-year old Pudding Cartwright, has started out on the career she always wanted, as girl groom to the Hadleigh family’s horses at upmarket Manor Farm. But at home, her family life has been shattered by the consequences of her brother Donny’s severe head injury, suffered during the Great War.

Donny, now just a frustrated and angry wreck of the promising young man he had once been, needs constant watching, and her devastated mother has become increasingly distant and forgetful.

Irene Hadleigh, meanwhile, is struggling to adjust to her new life at Manor Farm, having married popular landowner Alistair to escape a scandal in London. Watching over her is Alistair’s disapproving, eagle-eyed aunt Nancy, a woman with ‘a sharp edge’ constantly waiting ‘to cut her.’

At a loss to fill the void of her loveless marriage, Irene sets about restyling a room for herself at Manor Farm but during the work a strange and unsettling object, hidden away in the house for years, is found in a chimney. The locals see it as a piece of ‘witchery’ and Irene knows instantly that it will change everything.

When somebody close to both of them is murdered and Donny is suspected of being the killer, Pudding and Irene are thrown together to seek out the identity of the killer in their midst, unaware of just how deep the roots of the crime lie…

The Hiding Places is a powerful, haunting story set in an England struggling to come to terms with the First World War and its aftermath. Families still mourn their loved ones lost or forever damaged, and despite a nation on the cusp of momentous change, old traditions, expectations and superstitions die hard in the rural backwaters.

For Irene Hadleigh there is only despair ‘lapping dangerously around her ankles’ and marriage to a good man who can never truly make her happy. For Pudding, a free-thinking teenager with her eyes fixed firmly on the future, her life changed overnight when her bright, promising brother returned with a wound that would inflict unbearable pain on every member of her family.

When a murder wakes the village from its torpor, the tension ratchets up rapidly and secrets buried down the years spring surprises that will change the lives of many.

Written with compelling precision, stunning elegance and remarkable insight, this is the perfect read for mystery fans and book club readers.

(Orion, hardback, £14.99)