PALACE OF TEARS Author: Julian Leatherdale Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99 Review: Monique Mulligan
Angie loved Mr Fox’s magnificent, absurd hotel. In fact, it was her one true great love. But … today Angie was so cross, so fed up with everybody and everything, she would probably cheer if a wave of fire swept over the cliff and engulfed the Palace and all its guests.
About two years ago I was visiting a friend in the upper Blue Mountains (NSW, Australia) and, looking over a fog-shrouded valley, I realised how perfect the setting was for a gothic-style read. It seems I’m not the only one who has recognised this, because since then, I’ve read several books set in the upper mountains, all building on the setting to create an atmosphere of brooding secrets and mystery. Julian Leatherdale’s debut novel, Palace of Tears, uses the opulent Hydro Majestic Hotel (referred to as the Palace in the novel) and nearby valleys of secrets to deliver a novel of family secrets, betrayal and wartime hardship.
Part-historical, part-contemporary, this gothic-style novel weaves from the early 1900s to the present day as Lisa, granddaughter of former Palace owner Adam Fox, looks into her family history ahead of a celebration for the newly-refurbished hotel. When her ageing and unwell mother, with whom Lisa has had a complicated relationship, mentions Angie, “the girl who broke all our hearts”, Lisa’s curiosity is piqued. Who is Angie? What did she do? And what happened to her? Readers know that Angie lived in the cottage next door to the Palace and was friends with Adam Fox’s son and heir before his tragic death at age 13. Soon after, she moves with her mother to Liverpool, where her father, of German ancestry, is interned for the duration of World War I. Like Lisa, readers are kept in the dark about what happened next.
Leatherdale brings to life the grandeur and flamboyance of the pre-war and post-war era, when the Palace built its reputation on its glamorous parties and guests (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Nellie Melba). This glamour provides a startling contrast to the dark secrets exposed through meticulous research by Lisa and hotel historian Luke, as it does to the ageless but dangerous beauty of the surrounding landscape. Leatherdale’s love for the mountains comes across clearly, matching his love for delving into the past and discovering new in the old. As a gothic-style novel, it works well, using the Palace as a brooding, secretive character, with plenty of gloom, fog, mystery and secrets to add to the atmosphere.
While much of the story follows a themes familiar to the genre, what stands out is the sub-plot involving German internment during WWI. As someone with German ancestry (my maternal and paternal grandparents were German and moved here in the 1950s), I found the details revealed here to be informative, even startling. I had no idea that authorities reacted so harshly, that conditions in the internment camps were so rough, and that anyone with an inkling of German background was considered suspect. Even sadder was recalling that one of my grandmothers wanted to hide her German roots … and this was years after WWII. The other stand-out is the twist. It’s clever and I didn’t predict it.
Palace of Tears does jump around a bit in terms of time periods and viewpoints, which may be confusing for some and it is on the lengthy side, but overall, it’s an entertaining, colourful and informative novel. I enjoyed it – probably even more so because the location holds familiarity and a piece of my heart. Thanks Julian, for reminding this now Perth resident of where a piece of her heart lies. Oh, and the references to the Heidelberg school (I’ve always had a soft spot for that group of artists) only enhanced the sense of ‘coming home’.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.