Dual-period novels in which the past haunts the present always pique my interest, and it also intrigues me to see the many variations on this theme. I love Kate Morton's novels, and from the back cover blurb I would have predicted a similar type of read:
How can the mysterious disappearance of Anne Flint and the drowning of a young girl in a chalk stream in 1816 possibly affect the life of schoolteacher Harry Flint some two centuries later? ... A story of love and betrayal, intrigue, and murder, where people are not what they seem, and the past is no more predictable than the future...
However, The Haunting has a very different feel to anything Morton writes; its gentle, flowing style reflects the rhythms of life in rural Hampshire, and while chapters alternate between spring 1816 and spring 2010, the two eras are only loosely interwoven. The literal "haunting" mentioned in the title is almost incidental to the plot. This is deliberate on the author's part, and the opening quotation (see beginning of 2nd paragraph on this page) explains why.
Anne Flint is an attractive 15-year-old housemaid at a country manor. She is ambitious and literate (she loves reading romantic adventures about highwaymen) and dreams of becoming a lady's maid at a grand estate. One bright spring day in April 1816, she grabs her opportunity and sneaks out the wrought-iron gate for a scheduled meeting. Before day's end, another young woman will be found dead in the mill stream, wearing Anne's clothing. Anne is nowhere to be seen. Her journey from that point on is sometimes predictable, sometimes not.
In 2010, at St. Jude's School in Winchester, teacher Harry Flint does his best to interest his students in history, but they're having none of it. Still recovering from a recent divorce, he decides to make a fresh start by quitting his job and buying a small thatched cottage along the River Itchen. His work colleague thinks he's crazy because the house is in such poor shape, but Harry thinks it's the perfect place for him to research his ancestry. He doesn't get far. His friendship with the young widow next door quickly turns romantic (and helps him get over his lack of confidence and innate stuffiness), but there are issues both must address before they can move forward.
Parallels between the late Georgian scenes and the modern ones are blatantly drawn at first (we really don't need the same phrases repeated in both sections). Because of this, I expected more emphasis throughout on Harry's genealogical research and the specifics on how he and Anne were linked. They have the same last name, after all. Fortunately each story stands very well on its own—and that's all I'll say about what happens. Being American, I hadn't known that Alan Titchmarsh was the well-known host of gardening programs on the BBC, but his talent for describing country landscapes is a pleasurable highlight.
The novel takes on a melancholy air as it poses thoughtful questions on the impossibility of recapturing the past and how impulse decisions and random chance can both have long-term effects... ones which extend over centuries. Overall, though, it's not a depressing read. It wraps up on a very satisfying note.
The Haunting was published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback at £7.99 in August. My copy is the large format paperback (the export edition) priced at £13.99, which has the cover art above. Find it on Goodreads here.