The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

Back view of a woman in a blue Tudor dress walking out of an arched doorway towards the spreading winter-bare branches of a tree.Why I read it:  I received a review copy via the publisher.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  “My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  In 1560, both Mary Seymour and Alison Banistre were at Wolf Hall together. They weren’t friends but they weren’t exactly enemies either. Alison did Mary a big favour and requested a boon in return. Alison went through a portal into the future (present day Marlborough) and Mary stayed where she was. She was tasked with finding out the location of Alison’s son, Arthur, who had been taken from her at birth. The plan had been for Alison to come back through to the past in the short term, snatch up Arthur and live happily together, perhaps in the future, perhaps not. But Alison’s way was blocked and she could not return. When the book begins, Alison has been in “now” for ten years and is desperately searching for a way back and to the answer to what happened to her son.

When Alison stumbles into an art gallery which is displaying a picture of Anne Boleyn, she recognises the woman as actually Mary Seymour and this revelation sets her on a new path to discovery. There are clues in the painting and perhaps there are more clues to be found if she can discover where the painting was located and whether there was anything else with it. Alison has lived her life apart from others for the most part. She did not make close friends because she could not be truthful with them about who she was and where (or rather, when) she’d come from. She fell in love at age 19 when she was in university, with a young Adam Hewer but she broke things off because she was going to find Arthur and go back to him and there could be no future for her and Adam. As it happens, it was Adam, now a famous and popular historian and TV personality, who discovered the painting and so Alison and Adam are thrown again into each other’s orbit.

The story switches back and forth between Alison and Mary, between the present and the past. Some of the past sections are from Alison’s point of view. She is not always an easy character to like. When we first meet her as a 15 year old girl in Wolf Hall, she is unkind to Mary and selfish and self-absorbed. She doesn’t always act with honour. Mary is easier to like; she’s kind and lonely and naive, desperate for some affection and a home. Mary also has “the gift” and this puts her at great risk. If anyone were to discover it, she would be accused of witchcraft and likely put to death.

Mary has a “friend” who talks to her in her mind. They have some kind of psychic connection and this was perhaps the weakest part of the book for me. I didn’t have a good handle on how or why they could do this or why they used the names “Cat” and “Darrell” (there was an explanation of sorts for the “Darrell” later in the book but I never really understood the need for pseudonyms at all). Mary’s story was bittersweet and didn’t hang together quite as well as Alison’s. I didn’t connect with her quite as much. Then again, the romance, for the most part, was in the present day with Alison so it’s not really a wonder that I, a romance reader, was more drawn to that part of the story.

At first Alison and Adam were at odds with one another and Alison seemed pretty mean. It took a while for me to understand that she was defensive as a means to protect herself. Then too, at that time in the book, I hadn’t quite decided whether I liked her or not. I did end up liking her and admiring her. I realised I had been unfair to judge her so harshly at first. She was a child too really, even though 15 in Tudor times was considered marriageable age (or even younger *shudders*). She was taken advantage of and she did the best she could in the circumstances. Her grief at the loss of her son and her determination to find him grounded the story in an emotional authenticity which I felt keenly.

I enjoyed the romance between Adam and Alison even though this book is not really a romance per se. I say that because the romance (and it is a romance) between Adam and Alison is not central to the novel. The book is far more about Alison trying to find Arthur and about Alison and Mary.

The Phantom Tree had a bit of a slow start for me and there were some questions which were left unanswered even at the end. At one stage in the story Alison is to be married but the next thing, she and Mary are heading off to an unknown destination and then Alison goes forward in time. Given how far the marriage plans had gone, I had a little bit of whiplash there.

As the story progressed however, I became more engrossed and invested in what happened to Mary and how Alison’s story would end. Even though there are happy things at the end of the book, there are sad things too and in some cases, the scales seemed out of balance so I did have a bit of melancholy at the end even as I enjoyed the happy.

What else? The writing is clear and spare, without a lot of flowery prose, which I liked. The first person past tense had an intimacy to it which drew me in. The choice however did give me a couple of head-scratching moments but they were, at least in part, answered at the end of the book.

There is a mystery to the book and I suppose it was fitting that some of that mystery remains even after the book is finished.

Mary Seymour was a real person but what happened to her is lost to the mists of time. I enjoyed the mix of real characters and fictional ones and the glimpse into the Tudor era which is not one I have read a lot about. The Phantom Tree was a book which took a little while to grow on my but in the end I was so caught up in the story I stayed up way too late one night to finish it.

Grade: B

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