inéad Crowley, as well as being RTÉ’s Arts Correspondent, is the author of three highly successful crime novels (the DS Clare Boyle series), all of which have been nominated for Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards.
Her fourth novel is a complete departure, a “big house” story beginning just before the Famine, as well as a contemporary story of a rootless young woman finding her place in the world.
The labyrinth of Belladonna opened in 1840, on the extensive grounds of Hollowpark Hall in Co Roscommon. Deirdre Fitzmahon, the only daughter of the current holder of the Hall, plays with the gardener’s son in the huge maze of the estate. An unpleasant scene ensues when Deirdre’s cousin Paul finds them playing. Deirdre is unaware of the misfortune this cousin will cause her in the years to come, aside from her brief but unpleasant marriage to Laurence Foster, a marriage which will have a brutal and violent end.
Fast forward to 2007 on the Greek island of Zakynthos, where Grace works as a representative for a kids’ club at a busy resort town. She saves three-year-old Skye Fitzmahon from drowning in the hotel pool, and days later the girl’s grateful parents ask her if she would be interested in working for them as a nanny at Hollowpark Hall. The tourist season is coming to an end and although Grace usually spends the winters nannying in London, she feels this will be a welcome change. Also, she hasn’t returned to her native Ireland for years, with her own family in Dublin unhappy.
She must discover that her personal family history, heavy as it is, is nothing compared to the story of the Fitzmahons, with their ruined Palladian mansion, vast country estate and, significantly, their ancient labyrinth, now invaded by deadly nightshade.
Grace has been uncomfortable in Hollowpark from the start, and the more secrets she stumbles upon, the more anxious she becomes. But she loves her little load, Skye. And the landlady, Delia, is the opposite of Grace’s reckless mother. However, she begins to believe that the house is haunted. But surely she sees things?
From Henry James’s screw turn at Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House, via Agatha Christie’s poisonous plants and Daphne du Maurier’s even more poisonous housekeepers, this novel’s many influences are woven together as seamlessly as the dual-timeline plot. Even the choice of setting is spot on, in one of the most famine-stricken counties, with obvious similarities between Strokestown House, site of the Famine Museum, and the Hollowpark Hall estate. It’s evocative, well-crafted, historically accurate, and consistently chilling. More of this, please.