cover image The Sea Gate

The Sea Gate

Jane Johnson. Simon & Schuster Canada, $17.99 trade paperback (416p) ISBN 978-1-9821-4087-8

Johnson (The Tenth Gift) spins an irresistible epic history of one family in Cornwall, England. After Becky discovers a letter sent to her recently deceased mother by a 90-year-old cousin, Olivia, asking for help, Becky heeds the call and travels to Cornwall, where the authorities want to send Olivia to an assisted-living facility. At Olivia’s decrepit old house, Becky is greeted by a foul-mouthed parrot (“ ‘Fuck off,’ he says, so quietly it is almost an endearment”). As the days unfold through visits with Olivia at a nearby hospital, Becky discovers a kindred spirit in her elderly cousin, a painter whose work was renowned, but whose identity has been cloaked by the initials OK for decades. Seamlessly toggling back and forth between Becky’s point of view and Olivia’s, the story shifts from WWII Cornwall to the present day and takes an intriguing turn when Becky discovers a human bone in Olivia’s basement. Parts of the story are tough to take—an intellectually disabled child’s rape by a Nazi during WWII is particularly stomach-churning—though the villains are dispatched in suitable fashion. Johnson keeps the narrative speeding along, underpinning her tale with a large supporting cast, among them a housecleaner who secretly doses Olivia’s tea with rat poison and a builder who ties up the last of Olivia’s mysteries. Johnson’s powers of description evoke the setting’s living history and brings it to brilliant life. This sweeping saga is a must-read. (Jan.)