The world building elements in Patti Callahan Henry’s The Secret Book of Flora Lea are as varied and finely wrought as brush strokes on canvas. In the enchanting story’s two timeframes, the reader is taken into a quaint hamlet outside Oxford; pastoral fields beside the river Thames; a stone cottage with flourishing gardens; the fairy tale setting of Whisperwood; an antiquated bookstore in London’s town center; and, at the heart of the unfolding mystery, a secret between sisters evacuated from WWII London that haunts Hazel Linden well into 1960.
Excited to be taking an upwardly mobile position at Sotheby’s, on her last day of employment at Hogan’s Rare Book Shoppe in Bloomsbury, 25-year-old Hazel receives a shocking delivery from America of a recently published book titled, Whisperwood that dredges up the central wound of her past. The associated guilt Hazel harbors is never far from mind. “The dread. The panic. The jealousy of other people having small children at their side . . . Some days, she’d turn to that loss and acknowledge it, and sometimes, for blessed hours, she would forget, but then the shadow would fall long and fast onto her soul and she’d remember this: She lost her sister.”
Examining the book in hand, Hazel’s thoughts turn to 1940s London and “Operation Pied Piper, “a nursery rhyme name for a horror of an idea” that swept 14-year-old Hazel and her five-year-old sister, Flora, to the countryside during an uncelebrated part of England’s history that saw the children of WWII’s London relocated from harm’s way. “Now in the backroom of the small Rare Book Shoppe, the past overcame her. She’d been searching for her sister for twenty years now, ever since she’d disappeared when she was six years old from the hamlet of Binsey, and now Hazel had a clue, something to grasp on to and she was not letting go.”
Hazel’s devotion to discovering the truth behind the disappearance of her sister drives the story, and at its center is a 1940s fairy tale Hazel made up, intending to distract young Flora from the war-torn reality around them. The story grows in magical increments and begins each time, “Not very long ago and not very far away, there was and still is an invisible place right here with us. And if you are born knowing, you will find your way through the woodlands to the simmering doors that lead to the land made just and exactly for you.” The details of the imagined kingdom Hazel named Whisperwood were kept secret between the displaced sisters. When the book with that title falls into Hazel’s hands, so begins an expertly crafted suspenseful mystery.
The two timeframes in The Secret Book of Flora Lea create high stakes motivation as Hazel endeavors to discover what happened to Flora, while securing her own future. By 1960, Hazel has made a neat life for herself, despite her family’s unhealed backstory. Engaged to a young man from a prominent family and on course as a purveyor of rare books, when the past comes to haunt, questions of life’s priorities come to the fore, tipping the scale to the importance of family.
The supporting characters oscillate with fluid strategy throughout the story, as Hazel Linden, against all odds, refuses to accept the final judgement on her sister’s disappearance. Callahan Henry keeps the reader in character invested suspense. When all characters are brought into surprising alignment, Hazel asks herself, “Is this where hope met despair? Where the past rushed to the present? Where joy replaced the agony of the lost?”
Patti Callahan Henry delivers, yet again, an historically layered, dreamy tale that keeps the anglophile fires burning, on the heels of her acclaimed 2021 release, Once Upon a Wardrobe. Her descriptive detail is cinematic. Fourteen-year-old Hazel Linden, newly re-homed at the Aberdeen’s countryside cottage, gazes out the kitchen window in the hamlet of Binsey: “What a place this was, Hazel thought. All the wide green space to run; the rippling of the sky that touched the horizon of trees unobstructed by a cathedral or tall building. It was as if by taking a simple train ride the world had unfolded, presenting itself in long stretches of rolling hills and heather fields.”
A charming story that weaves fairy tale, mystery, and historical importance with a good dose of romance, The Secret Book of Flora Lea will appeal to all ages, as the author unfurls a fantastic story about “an invisible place right here with us.”