The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick: an atmospheric page-turner – book review -

Over 400 years after the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, we still recall that long ago explosive conspiracy and the part played by soldier Guy Fawkes.

The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick
The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick

But ringleader and chief instigator of the plot was a man called Robert Catesby, a recusant Roman Catholic who lived with his family at Chastleton House in Oxfordshire and became embittered against England’s Protestant rulers.

And it is the story of this angry young man, and the events that led up to the discovery of the deadly plot, that take centre stage in a gripping time-slip tale of history, mystery and romance from Nicola Cornick, a writer whose enthralling novels have been published around the world.

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Weaving fact and fiction, and spine-tingling elements of the paranormal, Cornick harnesses her fascination with Tudor gardens and the secrets that lie in the corners of the nation’s old houses to explore the Catesby family and the influences that might have led their only son to plot to kill King James I and his government.

In 1592, the Catesby family from ‘old gentry’ English stock has been harshly fined for adhering to the Catholic religion, placing a heavy burden of debt on their estates. William and Anne Catesby’s only son Robert has been spoiled by his indulgent father and Anne fears that he will ruin his life through ‘careless folly.’

The couple feel their mercurial son’s selfish and wild existence could be tempered by a good wife and he is only too happy to wed beautiful Catherine Leigh who comes ‘well-dowried’ and is the daughter of one of the Spencer family from Althorp.

But by the turn of the century, the darkly charismatic Robert is still just as rash and secretly plotting to kill the King, putting Catherine and their two sons in grave danger. Anne knows she must make a terrible choice... betray her only child, or risk her family’s future.

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Over 400 years later, Lucy Brown is still recovering from a flu virus which has caused serious nerve damage to her arm and ended her flourishing career as a classical violinist. Still unable to accept that she will never play again, Lucy takes refuge in her family’s centuries-old home in Oxfordshire.

Originally home to Robert Catesby, the gunpowder plotter, the house is currently occupied by handsome Scotsman Finn Macintyre, a garden historian leading an archaeological excavation on the site.

Lucy decides to move into Gunpowder Barn, the holiday home conversion on the estate, which is a glorious fusion of past and present. But, reeling from the shattering of her musical dreams, Lucy spends more time in the beautiful winter garden made by Robert Catesby.

And there is ‘a whisper of something else, something much older in the breeze,’ and soon Lucy starts to have strange visions and dreams of a woman in Tudor dress, terrified and facing a heartbreaking dilemma.

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As Lucy and Anne’s stories converge, a shared secret that has echoed through the centuries will change Lucy’s life forever…

The Winter Garden is a thrilling and emotion-packed story sweeping effortlessly across 400 years to bring us parallel lives in different timelines, but all overshadowed by the dark clouds of fear, sadness, grief and disappointment.

Anne Catesby worries for her reckless, troubled son whose anger and resentment constantly threaten the safety of his loving wife Catherine and their two young sons, while Lucy struggles with the anguish and hopelessness she is feeling at the loss of her musical career.

But it is in the beautiful winter garden – the place that once held happy memories for Robert’s wife Catherine and which now haunts Lucy – that ghosts are stirred and a long ago mystery holds its greatest and deadliest power.

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With her historian’s eye for fascinating stories from the past, and her novelist’s instinct for drama, adventure and suspense, Cornick delivers an atmospheric page-turner full of superbly imagined characters and authentic backdrops, and steeped in frissons of supernatural and the dangerous politics of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Clever, compelling, and with past and present blended to perfection, The Winter Garden is not to be missed.

(HQ, paperback, £8.99)