A strange encounter on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland kicks off this mystery of assumed identity and deceit. The premise of The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart reminded me immediately of Josephine Tey’s masterpiece about a fraudulent heir, Brat Farrar and Stewart’s characters refer to the Tey book. Days after a young man mistakes Mary Grey for a local woman who disappeared eight years earlier, Mary sees a strange woman watching her in the Newcastle café where she is waitressing. What follows is a complex plot to secure the fortune and property of an elderly gentleman, his health failing, before he should die. Mary, at the behest of sibling partnership Connor Winslow and Lisa Dermott, will impersonate Annabel Winslow, the woman she so resembles, in order to win the Winslow’s farm Whitescar for Con. Unscrupulous, immoral? Or redressing a wrong perpetuated in a will which needs updating before Matthew Winslow’s imminent death? Throughout the first half of the story, which works up to the false Annabel’s arrival at Whitescar and the hurdles of lies and pretence she must negotiate, I suspected Mary Grey of being the real Annabel. But at the halfway mark in the story, everything changes as new information bursts on the scene. And all set in the glorious summer setting of rural Northumberland, where abundant roses tumble through the hedgerows and a cat named Tommy has kittens.
More a mystery with an odd touch of romance, than a romantic mystery, Stewart has populated the story with edgy unlikeable characters. Apart from Annabel’s grandfather and her young cousin Julie, who was only eleven when Annabel was assumed dead after mysteriously disappearing. Julie’s naïvely-recounted memories of what passed eight years earlier help the reader, and ‘Annabel,’ to grasp the complexities of the Winslow family politics. But as for everyone else, I didn’t trust any of them.
The ivy tree of the novel’s title is not of course made of ivy, it’s a large old oak tree now swamped by ivy. ‘Eventually the ivy would kill it. Already, through the tracery of the ivy-stems, some of the oak boughs showed dead, and one great lower limb, long since broken off, had left a gap where rotten wood yawned, in holes deep enough for owls to nest in.’ As the story unfolds, the significance of this tree becomes clearer. Stewart, as always, writes with such a brooding sense of atmosphere, almost acting as an extra character. And she handles the balance of trickery, of information withheld, suspected, hinted and revealed, like a master craftsman.
A story with so many twists it seems the knot will never be untied. But it is, in a final thrilling scene involving the old ivy tree. Another Mary Stewart classic. She makes you feel as if you’re there, watching as the story unfolds around you.
CLICK HERE FOR MORE ABOUT ‘THE IVY TREE’
Click the title to read my reviews of other Mary Stewart novels:-
THIS ROUGH MAGIC
TOUCH NOT THE CAT
THE GABRIEL HOUNDS
Click the title to read my review of BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey.
If you like this, try these:-
‘My Husband the Stranger’ by Rebecca Done
‘Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Ekback
‘Little Deaths’ by Emma Flint
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THE IVY TREE by Mary Stewart #BookReview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Sc via @SandraDanby