Mysterious Blots On Love's Landscape

This is one of those novels that you're not too sure about to begin with but it has something about it that makes you persevere and, suddenly, about a quarter of the way in, you break through into the most fantastic story.

Once I had been drawn in, I found it impossible to put down.

Beauman has plenty of plaudits: this is her seventh novel and Rebecca's Tale, her sequel to Daphne du Maurier's classic Rebecca, was particularly well reviewed. She certainly deserves a wider audience.

Like Rebecca's Tale, The Landscape Of Love is something of an experiment, written from the point of view of various characters, interspersed with letters, reports and diary entries.

To begin with, I was confused about who was imparting what information: the novel's early narrator is 13-year-old Maisie, a devilishly intelligent girl with two older, more glamorous sisters, Finn and Julia.

Maisie is unreliable and difficult to read because she has quite an imagination (it is not until later that we find out exactly why this is).

It is the late Sixties and the once prosperous family, down-at-heel since their father's death, are living in a crumbling medieval abbey, where Maisie can hear the ghosts of the nuns whispering to her. Once you get past her quirks, though, a charming and bewitching story unfolds.

Later, the narrative voice switches to Daniel, a childhood friend of the family, a boy from the village who has made good.

His friendship with the family spurs him on to study hard, get into Cambridge, then move to London to make his fortune in advertising in the Eighties.

The novel switches back and forth in time as we alternate between the different versions of events: Maisie's account has been interrupted, it turns out, because she was involved in an accident, the cause of which no one understands.

Daniel holds himself responsible and is trying to find out what really happened, why he has lost Finn - the love of his life - and why third sister Julia hates him so much. By the time we work out what really happened, Maisie is 20 years older than when we first met her.

At least part of the mystery centres on a portrait of the three sisters drawn by Daniel's Cambridge friend Lucas one disastrous summer. Two decades later, Lucas is a famous artist and the portrait is the subject of fevered analysis. Daniel begins to wonder if there was something about the portrait and all the sittings that Lucas asked the sisters to do for the painting that might have caused the family to be dogged by tragedy.

So, he begins to pick apart a house of cards that threatens to destroy his own life.

The novel is full of motifs of the occult: Tarot cards, crystal balls, Romany sayings (Daniel's mother and grandmother were both fortune tellers). There is an atmosphere of foreboding, as if a curse hangs over Maisie's family.

There are both subtle and obvious mysteries to be revealed and to give away too much of the plot would ruin the delightful suspense that runs through this book. If you are a fan of delayed gratification, this novel repays patience in spades.

I found the final resolution incredibly disturbing and upsetting - I think because I had become so involved in and convinced by the characters.

It has haunted me for weeks - always the mark of passionate and assured writing.

Viv Groskop

Sunday Express 27.2.05