OCTOBER 22, 2023
BY JONATHAN HAUPT Special to The Post and Courier
THE SECRET BOOK OF FLORA LEA.
By Patti Callahan Henry.
Atria.368 pages. $28.99 hardcover
Bestselling author’s beguiling historical novel told through dual timelines
It seems an impossible task to describe the 17th novel from Patti Callahan Henry without using the word “enchanting.”
“The Secret Book of Flora Lea” is most assuredly that — and so much more.
Following as it does in the wake of the author’s acclaimed bestsellers “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” and “Surviving Savannah,” the novel further establishes Henry’s wellearned and still-growing reputation as a significant international author, and one who still makes her home (part-time, at least) here in the Lowcountry.
A meticulously researched historical novel, “The Secret Book of Flora Lea” begins its spellbinding tale of familial love and the transcendent power of storytelling in London during the World War II as teenage Hazel Mersey Linden and her much younger sister Flora Lea are relocated to the idyllic hamlet of Binsey, Oxfordshire, to escape the Blitz — just two of the 3.5 million young evacuees of Operation Pied Piper.
Once in the countryside, as a means of calming and distracting her sister, Hazel crafts for them a fantastical tale of a secret, magical land: Whisperwood. When Flora suddenly disappears along the River Thames, Hazel is left only with heartrending guilt for an ambiguous loss that haunts her into adulthood.
Some 20 years later, as Hazel is winding down her days in Hogan’s Rare Bookshop, and about to embark on an exciting new career at Sotheby’s, she receives by mail a copy of a forthcoming book, “Whisperwood and the River of Stars,” a debut novel from a heretofore unknown American writer, Peggy Andrews, living on Cape Cod, with exquisite illustrations by artist Pauline Baynes.
And thus, Henry’s protagonist embarks on her hero’s journey to discover the truth of her long-lost sister’s fate and how the wholly secret world they invented amid their war-torn childhood has inexplicably become immortalized on the page.
Told through dual timelines, Henry’s narrative excels in capturing nuanced historical detail and balancing momentum in a compelling and bittersweet mystery that is equally character-driven and plot-driven. She also brings fully to life a robust cast of characters spanning decades and both sides of the Atlantic.
The Linden sisters’ host family in Binsey, Bridie Aberdeen and her teen-age son Harry, offer myriad opportunities for the exploration of found families and first loves. Likewise, the nonagenarian owner of Hogan’s Bookshop, Edwin, his son Tom, and others who populate Hazel’s adult life in Bloomsbury also serve as heartfelt reminders of how powerful the gravitational pull of a comforting and supportive circle of friends (and bookish friends, at that) can be.
In pursuit of a truth of her own is the doggedly determined journalist Dorothy Bellamy, who is intent on interviewing Hazel about Flora for a series of articles on “The Lost Children of Pied Piper,” despite Hazel’s reluctance to participate in the project.
Personal histories, long-buried secrets, the very real facts of Operation Pied Piper, and the lush and imaginative world of storybooks converge in a page-turner of a novel that delivers upending plot twists en route to a heartfelt and eminently satisfying conclusion.
Henry is particularly clever in her trail of similarly hued clues, from a blanket to a ribbon to a character’s visual attributes, in leading her readers thoughtfully through a masterful literary and historical mystery.
The volume is augmented with handsomely illustrated end sheets and a detailed author’s note of the novel’s historical underpinnings, presenting welcome opportunities for further reading and exploration.
Enchanting, to say the least, “The Secret Book of Flora Lea” is a beautifully told testament to the inherent power of stories and books to bind lives together through otherwise insurmountable hardships and loss, and to ultimately offer the possibilities of redemption, homecoming and a renewed sense of identity and purpose — if only we find the courage and will to be the heroes our stories ask of us.
Reviewer Jonathan Haupt is executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and co-editor of “Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy.”