On the surface, Kate Morton’s most recent novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, is the raveling and eventual unraveling of a century and a half old mystery: what happened to the infamous Radcliffe Blue and the woman who went missing along with it that summer in 1862? Over one hundred and fifty years later, archivist Elodie Winslow happens upon a satchel containing an old photograph of a beautiful woman and a sketchbook containing drawings of a house that seems impossibly familiar, both strands of a lost story she becomes determined to bring to light.
But there is nothing surface level about this book. The Clockmaker’s Daughter is not Elodie’s story. It is not even truly the mystery’s story. It’s the house’s story, and that of the woman who haunts it.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter depicts a certain timelessness that is difficult to capture within words on a page. At it’s heart is that cruel, uncanny way the Earth continues to spin even after we’ve gone. None of her father’s clocks could properly account for Birdie’s life, at once tragically short and seemingly infinite. Both she and Birchwood Manor exist beyond the reach of ticking second hands, silently bearing witness to the lives of those still bound by them. A lonely school girl. A former soldier turned graduate student still grappling with the trauma of the first Great War. A young woman and her children displaced by the bombs of the second. For over a century Birchwood Manor plays host to lost souls looking for peace, for refuge, for answers, each visitor’s story becoming tangled in the webs of the house’s own.
“I am the hands of the clock and the spaces in between.”
Morton artfully takes her readers outside of the moment, beyond past and present, to join Birdie and the manor in the liminal space that they share. They are the constants in an ever changing world. Yet, in a way, so are their visitors. Time passes. Two wars ravage the continent. Technology develops and grows until it’s in people’s pockets. And yet, the people themselves change so little. Their dreams and joys, their tragedies and traumas, the secrets they keep and the answers they seek all stretch across time like the Thames across the countryside just outside Birchwood’s gate. In the end, it is a reminder that while the clocks indeed keep ticking after we’ve gone, our echos remain within the people who loved us and the places we made our own. And just as the various visitors’ stories intertwine with those who came to Birchwood before and those who follow after, our own stories are threads weaved into to a bigger tapestry we will never be able to fully see.
It must be said that this particular tapestry does get a bit muddled in the middle. There is no denying that The Clockmaker’s Daughter is incredibly ambitious, with nearly ten points of view spanning over a century. But in that ambition the main narrative gets lost from time to time, resigned to the edges in favor of it’s individual threads. Those who prefer a tight plot would likely struggle as the story wanders through the lives of each of Birdie’s visitors, but those who don’t mind the slower pace will undoubtedly appreciate the time spent with each person by the end.