Tyringham Park takes a few pages from the Downton playbook in that it mostly takes place on an enormous country estate during and after WWI, though the setting is Ireland's County Cork rather than rural England. However, while wartime troubles and the painful Anglo-Irish relations of the era play a small role, they take a back seat to the tragedies that blight the aristocratic Blackshaw family over the span of 26 years.
McLoughlin certainly knows how to spin a dramatic story. Her classic Gothic soap opera is filled with depictions of pastimes among the rich and privileged, petty jealousies, cross-class lust, shocking twists, unexpected triumphs, and nasty characters you'll love to hate.
The early sections are the hardest to read, with disturbing images of the physical and verbal abuse inflicted upon the young Blackshaw sisters. Their mother Edwina ignores them, their absent father prefers spending time at London's War Office, and their cruel nanny Nurse Dixon takes her pent-up frustrations out on her charges.
Eight-year-old Charlotte turns mute for a time after her toddler sister Victoria, "the pretty one," disappears one day in 1917. Rumors fly that Victoria was abducted by Tyringham Park's former seamstress, Teresa Kelly, who loved her but who had left to marry a farmer in New South Wales. The kidnapping of a child is a scenario no family should ever endure, but such was her toxic home environment that I hoped Teresa had succeeded. Teresa proves untraceable, so Victoria's fate remains unknown.
Charlotte bears the brunt of her mother's displeasure because she's plain and overweight. She grows up troubled and unhappy until kindly servants and family friends take an interest in her and encourage her brilliant talents in horsemanship and painting. Still, her parents' neglect and the twisted pain of her childhood hang heavily over her during her adolescence, and her loneliness and lack of self-confidence lead her to make dumb decisions about her future. I turned the pages avidly, unaware of where the plot might be leading and watching for signs that Charlotte would find the strength to escape.
Later scenes move the storyline along to Dublin, Paris, and the Australian countryside, while flashbacks provide perspective on Edwina's heartless attitude and Nurse Dixon's violent vindictiveness. Tyringham Park is very good at depicting the patterns of misery that repeat over generations, and with their tendencies toward arranged marriages, this affects the wealthy the most. There are many characters here that deserve readers' pity, and comparatively few to admire, but McLoughlin is a fluid storyteller, and I found it addictive escapism all the same.
Tyringham Park was published by Penguin UK in February 2013 at £7.99 (514pp, paperback). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.