A Half Forgotten Song tells two intertwining stories spaced over 70 years apart, and the seamless transitions heighten the sense that the past still exerts a strong hold on the present.
Zach is the owner of a failing art gallery in Bath who's feeling listless after his ex-wife takes their daughter to live in America. When he travels to the village of Blacknowle in Dorset in search of material for a book he's writing on bohemian artist Charles Aubrey, who summered there with his French-Moroccan mistress and two daughters in the '30s, Zach feels he's struck gold after he meets an elderly woman.
Dimity Hatcher was once the subject of many Aubrey portraits, and she informs Zach that she and Charles had had a grand love affair years ago. Dimity doesn't trust many people, but after Zach passes a test she gives him, she decides to tell him some of her story (but not nearly all).
Back in the pre-war years, the girl nicknamed "Mitzy" Hatcher sees a new world open up before her when the Aubreys come to vacation in Blacknowle, attracted by its beauty and quaintness. However, what the Aubreys see as old-fashioned charm is, for Mitzy, depressing poverty. Neglected by her alcoholic mother, who crafts herbal remedies and makes extra money as a prostitute, Mitzy is already an outcast in her community and quickly latches onto the Aubreys – particularly when Charles's artistic gaze falls upon her.
Despondent as Zach is, he doesn't run away from or even question some very odd circumstances he encounters in Blacknowle, such as when Mitzy asks him for some things that would seem like obvious ingredients for a witch's spell. (His potential love interest, Hannah Brock, also lives in absolute squalor; there's a reason behind it, but still.) His lack of reaction requires some suspension of disbelief.
However, this added creepiness sets the right tone for gradual revelations of the darkness in Mitzy's past, and a multi-layered tale about an intense artist, an impressionable young woman, and how a girlhood crush can spiral into an unhealthy, destructive obsession. The revelations at the end are unexpected, astonishing, and definitely worth waiting for.
A Half Forgotten Song was published in May by Harper ($14.99, pb, 496pp). I read it two weekends ago from the UK edition, pictured above, which I'd purchased online last year (Orion, 2012, £7.99).