What Maisie Saw

The Landscape of Love

Having previously written a continuation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Sally Beauman begins this new novel with an obvious reference to another old favourite. In Dodie Smith's I capture the Castle, the story of the penniless, motherless Mortmain sisters is told in diary form. The Landscape of Love begins with the journal of 13-year-old Maisie, youngest of the penniless, fatherless Mortland sisters.

Both Mortlands and Mortmains have eccentric relations, live in derelict medieval piles, and are worshipped and waited on by a dazzled yokel. So far, so similar, as Maisie records the summer of 1967 when the three girls are sitting for a group portrait. Maisie describes her beautiful and clever sisters Julia and Finn, their mother, "who inhabits a planet far from here", their kind and broke grandfather, the half-Romney village boy Daniel, and the ghostly nuns whom only Maisie can see.

Fast forward to 1991. The now-famous portrait, on show in London, brings back uncomfortable memories of that distant summer. Dan has become a film director, once famous, now out of work. As he tries to reconstruct half-remembered events, he exposes old secrets, lies and false perceptions. Maisie's naive journal turns out to be the ramblings of a damaged, possibly autistic child, her sisters' lives have been undermined by hypocrisy, and Dan is overtaken by remorse mixed with nostalgia for the lost world of his childhood.

The elegiac undertone enriches this sophisticated drama. Sally Beauman is a skilful writer who manages a complicated plot with a magician's mastery, flicking between viewpoints and periods, always smooth and deceptive, surprising the reader all the way from the book's apparently romantic beginning to an unexpected ..... end.

Jessica Mann

The Sunday Telegraph, 9.1.05.