Book: “The Phantom Tree” by Nicola Cornick
Publishing Info: Graydon House, August 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley
Book Description: 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…
Review: This is probably one of the first historical fiction novels that is NOT a mystery that I’ve read in quite a while! As such, I was quite excited to return to the genre, especially when comparisons to Phillipa Gregory’s books were being routinely listed (though I’ve had a fairly hit and miss experience with Gregory, I will always love “The Other Boleyn Girl.”) The book had a bit of a slow start and didn’t grab me as much as some of Gregory’s better books, but over all, I still enjoyed “The Phantom Tree,” especially its take on a lesser known and minor character in Tudor history.
Allison is a woman out of her own time, and while she’s managed to scramble a life together for herself, calling upon her vast stores of sheer determination and stubbornness, she still longs to return to her original time back in the 16th century where she was forced to leave behind her infant son. Her only clues are connections to Mary Seymour, a fellow orphan left to be raised at Wolf Hall, and a young woman with a mysterious ability of her own. But Mary has been lost to time, with many scholars believing she died in infancy. When Allison discovers a painting of an adult Mary, she finally is able to begin picking up the clues that may finally lead her home.
This story is pieced together through the perspectives of both Allison and Mary. Allison’s portions consist of her life in the present and her search to return to the past. And through Mary’s eyes, we see the events that lead to Allison’s journey to the future and the events that have unfolded after she’s gone missing, and which Allison herself is now piecing back together centuries later.
Both Allison and Mary were compelling characters, however the nature of the story and the way their stories unfolded did lead to the book feeling as if it had a slow start. Further, both of them were initially a bit unlikeable, with Allison coming off as a bit of a ignorant brat (mostly her past self) and Mary as too wilting and unwilling to take action in her own life. However, from these weaker beginnings, both characters ultimately grew into women I found myself greatly rooting for.
I didn’t know much about Mary Seymour before going into this book, so I did end up doing a bit of background reading to try and figure out how much if this story is based on history. Mary disappeared from history when she was around 2 years old and is presumed to have died in young childhood. That leaves the majority of this story as operating in a fictional setting. However, what made it stand out was the creative way the author managed to tell Mary’s story in a way that made it believable that she may have lived longer but still been absent from history. The fantastical elements come in early, especially with regards to Mary, so there’s never any real question about the authenticity of the tale, but it still added a nice layer that the book never strayed too far into the unbelievable as far as her actual life.
Allison is, of course, a completely fictional character. What I most appreciated about her story was the build-up for her character back in the 16th century that helped establish her as a person capable of adapting to a completely different life in modern times. Think about it: that’s a huge ask of a character and the book explores a few other characters who also time traveled and were less successful with it. The same brashness and stubborn refusal to bend that made her rather dislikable as a teenager in the past were also the traits that let her survive on her own in a completely new world.
The time travel and fantastical elements did end up playing a larger role in the story than I initially anticipated, and there were a few twists and turns towards the end that were especially surprising. At the same time, I never felt like these aspects of the book overran the historical setting of the past sequences or the modern version of the story that focused on Allison’s search for family, her discovery of self and what she wants from her life, and the burgeoning romance with a historical researcher.
By the end of the story, I was actively rooting for both of these main characters, made all the more tense by the knowledge that something dark had to be looming to explain Mary’s sudden disappearance in history. This particular element of the book did wrap up rather suddenly, and while it helped build the believablity of the mystery, it was also a bit traumatic to experience with one of your main characters.
I very much enjoyed “The Phantom Tree.” It was a strange mix of fantasy/time travel, historical fiction, and even modern romance. Both Mary and Allison were compelling heroines, though I never quite escaped a certain sense of distance from the story which prevented me from becoming fully enthralled. For fans of time travel stories, however, and especially those interested in the Tudors, I would definitely recommend this book!
Rating 7: A solid new entry into the subgenre of historical/time travel fiction, though I didn’t connect with it as fully as I may have wished.
“The Phantom Tree” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Historical Fiction/Time Travel.”
Find “The Phantom Tree” at your library using WorldCat.