After working as a nanny to the Laurent family for more than a decade, Amy has to return to England to care for her ailing grandmother, however after her grandmother passes away Amy receives a plea for help from Julia Laurent who has been tragically widowed. With no means of supporting herself financially, Julia has had to return to her childhood home in a remote village in Somerset but the abandoned cottage situated on the banks of a reservoir is both dank and dreary.
When Amy moves into the cottage she becomes increasingly concerned for Julia’s mental health and struggles to cope with ten-year-old Viviane who seems to be coping with her father’s death by talking to her imaginary friend, Caroline, which just happens to be the name of Julia’s deceased sister. When strange things begin to happen in the cottage, particularly in Caroline’s room, Amy attempts to dig deeper into the family’s background and discovers Caroline was a deeply troubled girl who seemed to do nothing but cause harm. As Amy starts to piece Caroline’s story together, she realises the darkest secrets are at the heart of the village itself and she may be about to uncover something far more sinister.
The Secret of the Lake is a gothic thriller in the style of Daphne du Maurier but while the writing does manage to evoke an increasing sense of creepiness, the novel is let down by its predictable plot. Just as du Maurier liked to use the setting to create a atmosphere in her novels, Douglas successfully follows suit by making good use of lengthy descriptions of the lake to create a gloomy atmosphere that becomes increasingly sinister. The descriptive passages are well written and they succeed in bringing the setting to life so much so the lake becomes a character in its own right and you know when the surface is stormy, things are going to get bad.
The cottage itself is just as dreary as its surroundings and I liked how Douglas described it as a place that seemed to suck the life out of anyone or anything that came through the door. Between the lake and the cottage, it is hardly surprising Julia and Viviane are having a hard time coming to terms with their grief and it is down to Amy to try to turn the cottage into a home although it seems like a losing battle. When Amy moves into the cottage, she immediately senses there is something not quite right and then Caroline begins to make her ghostly presence felt. We have all the classic elements of a haunting from chilly temperatures to sounds in empty rooms and objects moving on their own, all of which contribute to the creepiness already established.
At this point, Caroline seems very much a malevolent figure intent on manipulating Viviane into carrying out her wishes but it became obvious to me that Caroline was doing the opposite – she was trying to get people to listen to her. The truth about Caroline is revealed gradually and while Douglas does a decent job of stringing the reader along, some of the twists were less powerful than they could’ve been if Douglas hadn’t signposted them as much. There were a few points that were never fully explored, but I can’t really divulge them here without ruining the plot.
The story was also set in the 1960s which seemed to invalidate the impoverished lifestyle the cottage inhabitants were enduring as they could’ve easily applied for welfare instead of relying on the kindness of others but it was never mentioned. Part of me feels the story would’ve worked better if it had been set farther back in history where the village would’ve been even more isolated and the power held by the authority figures would’ve been even more credible.
Despite the predictability of the story, I did enjoy Louise Douglas’s writing and will probably read more of her books.