"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive", Sir Walter Scott once observed in his poem Marmion. Now Rosemary McLoughlin's second novel depicts just how tangled that web can become.
Lochlann Carmody, an Irish doctor working in the Australian outback, swaps his wife Charlotte's stillborn baby for a healthy one, without either mother knowing of his deception.
The healthy baby is an identical twin, born to an Australian farmer's wife. The farmer's wife believes one of her twins is stillborn, while Charlotte Carmody thinks she's delivered a healthy baby. The doctor is a heinous criminal and deserves what's coming to him, you would think.
However, the author draws her readers in with considerable skill, leaving us not only sympathising with the doctor, but almost hoping he'll get away with it. And, what's more, we're left feeling the same about other huge deceptions in this story. But the truth is catching up with Dr Carmody as the plot progresses seamlessly between Australia and Ireland through the 1940s and 1950s.
The farmer's wife becomes increasingly ill from grief, while the Carmody family return to Ireland, to the infamous Tyringham Park estate and to the tyranny of its mistress, Edwina Blackshaw.
Writing a sequel is a tricky business, and writing one which resumes the action from the precise moment its prequel ended is even trickier, but Rosemary McLoughlin has clinched it.
The previous novel ends with the double deaths of Charlotte Carmody and her vicious childhood nurse, Elizabeth Dixon. Tyringham Park, the first book, is shot through with nurse Dixon's poison, and this new book is charged with her legacy of bitterness, along with the enduring resentments of Edwina, Lady of the Park.
This sequel also introduces a new plotter and schemer, the twins' older Australian sister, Zita.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and when Zita finds out about the baby swap, she bides her time. Years of time, as it happens, while the twin sisters grow up across a distance of 12,000 miles, each unaware of the other's existence. How Zita eventually orchestrates the meeting of the twin sisters is the kernel of the story.
This new novel moves at a faster pace than the first. The plot cracks on furiously, filled with McLoughlin's leitmotif of good people doing bad things. It was the bad people who left me slightly dissatisfied. While the reader is given the backfill on why the "baddies" have gone bad, I was left unconvinced to some degree.
Every sweeping family saga of this kind needs the bad guys (or gals in this case) to drive the plot, but it's necessary for those same villains to be as well-rounded as their victims, probably even more so. However, that's a small quibble about a novel which I found difficult to put down.
Published in 2012, McLoughlin's first book, Tyringham Park was nominated for both the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award, and the IES Best Irish-Published Book of the Year award.
That's quite a heady distinction for a debut. Fans of the original novel will not be disappointed. And with awards season hoving into view, it will be interesting to see how McLaughlin's second foray into fiction is received.