Reading my umpteenth Kearsley novel, I noticed something in her narrative I hadn’t beforehand: a common emotional trajectory that may be characterized as melancholy mood to joyful conclusion. Because they are the most historical of historical romances, their melancholy comes from Kearsley’s initial presentation of her characters as trapped by history. But she builds their strength, intelligence, and virtue and proves to us how these qualities can sometimes defeat history’s choke-hold. She writes about ordinary people (when considered through the lens of big-name, big-battle, big-power sweep) but extraordinary in how they wrest happiness out of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles determined by history and its cruel, expedient masters, men of power over honour. At their centre are women and child characters who are victimized but not victims, exercise agency within constricting circumstances and yet are often trapped by forces beyond their capacity to fight back. In the end, characters escape to a happy life by circumventing evil using wiles without losing their essential goodness. The Vanished Days‘ Lily Aitcheson and her helpers are such. Her story is told in a dual-timeline alternating between childhood/youth and the novel’s “present-day”, the early 1700’s. Her story is narrated by one Adam Williamson, who is tasked to investigate Lily’s claim for compensation as the widow of a man who perished in Scotland’s 1698-Darien-colony-bound fleet. The blurb fills in historical detail further:
Through Adam’s account, we learn Lily’s story as she recounts it to him, attempting to prove her marriage to Jamie Graham, her childhood friend at Inchbrakie, Perthshire. It was an idyllic time that yet is followed by another brief time of happiness for Lily when she lives with her father and his new wife. But the times they are fraught and the “Union” with England hasn’t stirred the hearts and swords of the Jacobites any less, au contraire. When circumstances tear Lily from her family, she finds herself alone and vulnerable until she is adopted by a kindly woman of ill repute, Barbara Malcolm, where Lily lives with her foundling “brothers,” also adopted and lovingly brought up by Barbara. Barbara’s husband, Archie Browne, on the other hand, is mean-spirited and exploitative. Lily’s life is beset by his abusive machinations. There is one foundling “brother”, however, who returns from his travels years after Lily is a grown, Matthew, the love of Lily’s life and she of his.
In every scene, political intrigue wars with characters trying to live their lives by building a family with a person they love. This is the narrative’s constant tension and it kept me glued, especially in the second half, to my Kindle, far into the wee hours. There are separations, losses, misjudgements, and the constant refrain of “vanished days” (from John Masefield’s “The Word”) as regret, but ultimately, the hope of better days to come. Captain Gordon (whom we met in The Winter Sea) says to Adam near the novel’s end ” ‘ … it’s a shame that we cannot reclaim those vanished days, and try to live them better.’ ” Adam’s response speaks more of future hope than regret when he retorts, ” ‘Who’s to say we would not live them worse?’ “
There is a quiet dogged dignity and strength to Adam and Lily, as their official business turns to love. They are careful, methodical, and ethical. What soon becomes evident to Adam is that Lily is ensnared in a scheme that sees her life at stake. Without spoiling the narrative, suffice to say Lily is, as with most of the female characters, trying to protect the innocent. Adam is a diffident man, but he is fully aware of right from wrong and sets out to free her. On the way, there are hinderers, but also helpers, one of whom comes as an utter, surprising delight.
Kearsley’s narrative is a maze of dead and open ends as we try to follow the players, historical and fictive, who enmesh the worthy Adam and Lily, and their found families and friends. I will indulge in one moment of whinginess: I did miss Kearsley’s contemporary timeline as she wielded it in Bellewether, for example. The Vanished Days‘ alternating but akin timelines were claustrophobic in a way that Bellewether‘s contemporary and historical timelines, and especially their romances, weren’t. My whinge, however, remains a minor note to Kearsley’s pièce de resistance, a narrative twist of breath-taking aptness and vindication. ’nuff said, though, lest I give the game away.
I’m sorry to say my Canadian and UK friends will have to wait till April 2022 to read The Vanished Days (what’s up with that?), while my American friends can enjoy it pronto. Miss Austen would approve of Kearsley’s lovers and their HEA and agree when I deem The Vanished Days “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Susanna Kearsley’s The Vanished Days is published by Sourcebooks Landmark and was released for the US on October 5th. I received an e-galley, from Sourcebooks Landmark, for the purpose of writing this review.