Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore Hotel, where guest Grace Brown entrusts her with the task of burning a secret bundle of letters. But when Grace’s drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers that the letters could reveal the grim truth behind a murder. The book is based on the real murder of Grace Brown by her lover Chester Gillette. Some of the characters are fictional but the main players are real.

This is the debut novel by Jennifer Donnelly and was written in 2003. She has since gone on to write some amazing novels, not least of which is Revolution (see review). This one is outstanding. The book is set in 1906, a time in America where anything was possible. People like Mattie went to work at places like the Glenmore and succeeded. Earned money, met new people, changed their lives – the class system in America was not as stringent as it was in Britain. So when she meets Grace Brown she is fascinated, and a little overwhelmed.

The opens with the staff watching as the lake is dragged for a body. When she is brought in Mattie assumes that she isn’t dead, just faint. The description in this book is amazing. The cold foreboding of the lake, the dripping of the dress as the body is brought in, the naivety of Mattie – it’s so clever. The present is juxtaposed with stories of Mattie’s upbringing. There are lots of mouths to feed and not much money to go round, but Mattie is obviously trying to better herself and her siblings. She gives them all a word of the day and is trying to teach them all to read. She spends all their grocery money on a notebook because it looks so pretty and she wants to write in it. It is a constant throughout the novel that she worries for them and their future.

The book is part mystery novel, part thriller and part social commentary. Life was tough, there is no doubt; but not if you had money. The difference between the staff who eek out a living at the Glenmore and the guests is obvious. Mattie holds the key to mystery and it becomes obvious that Grace Brown gave her the letters because she assumed she couldn’t read, so there would be no danger of her discovering the truth. Grace in turn is not as wealthy as her lover, not a great catch, and this is ultimately the reason that she has to go.

A really well written and clever book. Donnelly is so good at describing the world that she creates, it makes you feel as though you can reach out and touch it. You empathise with Mattie, but also with Grace and her predicament. Well worth a read if you want to immerse yourself in something on a rainy day.

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