This is a story told on two levels. Kate Mayfield is a retired teacher, unmarried, leading a blameless existence, whiling away her time at swimming and badminton clubs. She has only one really close friend, Hilly, whom she has known since their schooldays.
A letter arrives from Mrs. Ivanisovic, a figure from a terrifying past which she has tried to suppress for thirty years. Mrs. Ivanisovic wants to know more about her son’s death in the early 1970’s. Kate was his girlfriend at the time. From this point the novel alternates between the present and the past.
Kate is a college student, and her boyfriend Danny is at a nearby university. Kate’s parents are extremely strict and old-fashioned, and would be horrified to know that Kate is sleeping with him on a regular basis. The long summer vacation is looming. Danny tells her that his friend Simon’s uncle, who owns a large country house on the other side of their town, is going to be away for several months and wants Simon to live in the house and do some work in the garden, including making a pond. He suggests he takes a couple of friends with him to help. Danny and Kate are really keen on this idea, but Kate has to concoct an elaborate deception for her parents’ benefit, in which she is supposed to be going to France with a female college friend. The friend has even been provided with pre-written letters home from Kate.
At first the occupation of the house is idyllic. Danny, Kate and Simon spend long days idling in the garden. Kate does her best to cook for them, but the results are pretty poor. Simon has a car, so they can take a number of days off. One day they go on a long trip to the seaside. On the beach they are approached by a beautiful girl who introduces herself as Trudie. The boys are charmed with her and are somehow inveigled into inviting her to stay at the house. Kate is jealous and suspicious, but hopes she will become a partner for Simon and leave Danny alone. Their lives are certainly enhanced by Trudie’s excellent cooking.
In the present, Kate is still trying to fob Mrs. Ivanisovic off, and her two swimming friends (who are no more than casual acquaintances) are becoming increasingly curious about Kate. Kate’s youthful character is gradually revealed as grudging and suspicious. She is jealous of Trudie’s interest in Danny, but when she finds out that Danny has told his parents that she and Danny are thinking of getting engaged, she is furious. Both Simon and Trudie clearly have secrets of their own.
Kate eventually goes to see Mrs. Ivanisovic, who is dying and is still looking for an explanation as to why her much loved son committed suicide.
This book is in many ways a real page-turner. At the back of the house is a wood where a young woman was murdered in the 1920’s. Trudie, who considers herself to be psychic, claims to see the ghost of the murdered woman and insists on holding a séance, but it is she who ends up terrified, saying that the face of the murdered woman is her own.
The climax comes during a nocturnal walk in the woods when Trudie is killed, apparently in a freak accident. After that, the denouement is to a certain extent predictable, as the reader has been given a good helping of clues. This is a powerful, well-written novel, with a strong psychological element reminiscent of Barbara Vine.