When Eve, a young freelance translator, meets Dom, an older musician, at a chateau along Lake Geneva, both are at low points in their lives. They unexpectedly fall in love, and together they purchase a huge, crumbling farmhouse, Les Genévriers, nestled in the Luberon Mountains of southern France. Here they delight in the pleasures of the region and in each other, but as the seasons change, shadows appear in their relationship. Dom refuses to speak about his former wife, Rachel, and withdraws more and more into himself. His coldness arouses Eve’s curiosity and alarm and incites her to search for answers.
In alternating chapters that don’t mark the change of narrator (but which aren't confusing for the switch), an elderly woman named Bénédicte Lincel speaks of growing up at Les Genévriers in the 1930s and 40s. Her glorious childhood is marred only by the cruelty of her older brother, Pierre, and her family’s decline into poverty during the postwar years. Both Eve and Bénédicte catch glimpses of what they believe are ghosts on the property, and apprehension builds as the tragedies in their lives are slowly uncovered.
Reflecting the bounty of the land, the language is ripe and sensual (tomatoes are "as ribbed and plump as harem cushions"). The regional specialties, like vin de noix – sweet walnut liqueur – sound mouth-wateringly delicious. Armchair travelers will revel in Lawrenson’s lush descriptions of the lavender harvest, an event in which Bénédicte participates in order to share the experience with her blind sister, Marthe, who grows up to be a renowned parfumeuse. The cycle of life is evoked in full, from birth and growth through death and decay – as it affects local crops, the structure of Les Genévriers, and the affairs of its human inhabitants.
The Lantern is setting-driven before it becomes character-driven, as if to imply that one must get to know the terrain before knowing its people. Everyone is holding something back, and Eve herself acknowledges the uncanny similarities between her life and the plot of Rebecca. To enhance the parallels even more, “Eve” is merely Dom’s nickname for the modern narrator; her real name is never given.
A few scenes take the easy way out during an otherwise complex reading experience. Pierre is a stereotypical bully, and his malicious actions can be predicted from miles away. But apart from this, the author displays smart plotting and a good sense of timing. She gently manipulates readers along a suspenseful path, culminating in an astonishing revelation that Du Maurier couldn’t have imagined.
Those who enjoy Kate Morton’s novels and other Gothic family sagas should enjoy this book as well, although its pacing is more drawn out in the beginning, and its phrasings have more of a literary flair. Darkly evocative, beautifully written, and overflowing with the sights and scents of the Provençal countryside, The Lantern takes a powerful look at the haunting presence of the past.
The Lantern was published by Harper in September at $25.99 (hardcover, 384pp). In the UK, it's available from Orion in either hardcover (£18.99) or paperback (£7.99), with a very similar cover.