An eerie, old Scottish manor in the middle of nowhere that's now hers.
Ailsa Calder has inherited half of a house. The other half belongs to a man who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago—her father.
Leaving London behind to settle the inheritance from her mother's estate, Ailsa returns to her childhood home, nestled amongst the craggy peaks of the Scottish Highlands, joined by the half-sister who's almost a stranger to her.
Ailsa can't escape the claustrophobic feeling that the house itself is watching her—as if her past hungers to consume her. She also can't ignore how the neighborhood animals refuse to set one foot within the gates of the garden.
When the first nighttime intruder shows up, Ailsa fears that the manor's careless rugged beauty could cost her everything.
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The Manse is watching me.
At first I don't notice it, I'm too involved in my study of the imposing gray stone edifice before me. It's a tall structure-three stories, and the first two must have high ceilings-with a turret and stepped gables like sets of staircases. Grand baronial style, I think, the half-remembered phrase leaping into my mind. I recognize the ground-floor bay windows that frame the wide doorway from the old battered photograph that has traveled as far and wide as I have, but as I squint at them, I become aware of an acute, uneasy silence, as if the whole building is holding its breath. There's a queer stillness to the dark, unreflective granite, to the slate roof; as I lift my eyes upward, I notice that even the sky behind is still-still and leaden and looming. I turn my attention back to the windows, wondering whether the photograph I always keep beside my bed was taken in front of the left or the right one, and as I study them, I have the disturbing sense that whatever lurks beneath the flat, gray surface is stirring; the windows are craning forward, crowding toward me. I blink to try to find a wider perspective, but then I notice that even the turret on the left is peering down; I have the sensation that it's swooping, rushing toward me, and my stomach lurches as if the lawn has dropped away beneath my feet. The house means to swallow me, I think with an irrational flood of panic, swallow me whole-and then what?
"Jesus." It's Carrie, my half sister, pushing her badly cut fringe out of her eyes as she joins me on the mossy lawn to survey the house. Her voice drags me back to normality with a hard jolt. I feel like I'm staggering from the impact. "This is a bloody castle."
"It's not so big inside."
I can feel her slanting gaze on me. "So you remember?"
Do I? Or have I created memories, built on the back of the photograph and the tales of others? Snatches of phrases, half-formed images, crafted in a child's mind into a castle worthy of the Brothers Grimm, the type of castle in tales that have nothing to do with fairies. I weigh my answer. I have an irrational feeling that Carrie isn't the only one listening. The Manse has been waiting a long time for me-a quarter of a century, give or take-but I imagine stone can be very patient.
I'm imagining rather a lot today. Tiredness from the long drive, presumably. Stick to the facts, Ailsa.
"Do you?" prompts Carrie.
"Yes," I say finally. "I remember. At least a bit."
Suddenly there is an earsplitting crack. Instantly I'm turning, scanning around, grabbing Carrie's arm with one hand to pull her with me. "Ailsa," I hear her say as I search the area wildly. Then, louder, more urgently, "Stop! It's all right. It's just a branch. On the oak. It broke." She catches me with her cool silver-gray eyes, so like our mother's, the only part of her that is. There's a drumming in my ears. It takes me a moment to realize it's my heartbeat. I take a breath, then another, staring into those pale eyes. "It's okay," she says gently. "Just a branch. Look." I follow her pointed finger. There's a very old oak tree that I hadn't noticed but somehow knew was there, to the right of the house. The lowest branch, thicker than the width of a well-built man, has cracked and is dangling at an odd angle. The twisted wood looks dead and dry. The tree is uncomfortably close to the house; its roots must be irreversibly tangled with the foundation. They must have burrowed into the dank earth, thin tendrils slipping through cracks in the brickwork below, growing and expanding over time, tightening around the bricks and pushing out the mortar, inveigling themselves until house and tree became irrevocably entwined. Rot in one can only lead to the same in the other.
The facts, Ailsa. Stick to the facts.
"Well," says Carrie, drawing in a deep breath. Her thin shoulders rise and fall with the draw of her lungs. "That was dramatic."
I'm not sure if she's referring to the broken branch or my reaction. I turn away to ward off her gaze. "Sorry," I say, looking at the tree instead. Only the broken branch appears dead; the rest seems to be thriving. "It was . . . Anyway. Sorry." I head for my little hire-purchase Golf before she can press her point, whatever that may be. "Time to move in, I guess." I throw a swift glance at the Manse as I open the boot of the car, but it's not watching, breathing, swooping or in any way exhibiting animated behavior. The facts: it's just a rather impressive old Scottish manor in the middle of nowhere that now happens to be mine.
Except itÕs not. Not mine, not completely-and if you donÕt completely own a house, you might as well not own it at all, or so I discovered on meeting my motherÕs lawyer in his smart office in the City of London. I wasnÕt quite fresh off the boat (yes, boat) from Egypt; IÕd slept two nights in my motherÕs and PeteÕs house in Surrey-my motherÕs very last abode, but never a home to me-but I was still adjusting to the cool, the lack of sunshine, the muted shades after color so intense it could hurt the eyes. The England I found myself in was lacking, whereas Egypt had been too much.
"Sell it?" The lawyer repeated my question, shaking his head. "Oh no. I'm sorry to say that with this type of joint ownership, there is very little you can do. You can't sell the property without the permission of the joint owner, you see."
"I can't . . ." His words took a moment to sink in. In fact the whole situation was still sinking in. Had I known my mother still owned the Manse? I couldn't say for sure either way. Certainly it wouldn't have been something we talked about. "I can't sell it?" He inclined his head apologetically. "What about renting it out?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Not without the permission of the joint owner."
"And the land?"
"No, not that either. Again, not without the permission of the joint owner."
"Even though that joint owner-my father-hasn't been seen or heard from for, let's see, twenty-seven years?"
"Indeed." Ignoring my caustic tone, he paused to remove his glasses and rub the bridge of his nose, then went on diffidently. "I don't suppose that you've had some slight contact with your father over the years?" His small myopic eyes blinked hopefully from his round face, putting me in mind of a mole. He must have been at least fifty, and he looked so much like how I would have imagined a probate lawyer would look that I could have believed I was on a film set and none of this was real. "A birthday card or something . . . anything . . . that you might not have wanted to share with your mother?"
I shook my head mutely.
"Ah," he said sadly. "That is a shame." I stared at him, but he was rubbing the bridge of his nose again. The gross absurdity of his understatement appeared lost on him. "Then the avenue that is open to you is to apply to the courts to rectify the situation; that is to say, to have his ownership share transferred to yourself. It would be under the Scottish Courts; you'd have to apply for a Presumption of Death. Our Edinburgh office would help you with that, though." Presumption of Death. I found myself imagining a form with those words in crisp black ink on stark white paper. How neat and tidy and definitive for a situation that was nothing of the sort. He went on, adopting an apologetic tone again: "I have to say that given the precise details of your father's disappearance, I imagine it might not be a straightforward process. It could take quite some months. Years even."
"Right," I said faintly while the Manse in my memory grew, expanding out from the photograph, hijacking my thoughts, my mind, my life. A house I hadn't lived in since my father disappeared and we fled from his absence-at least my mother fled, and I was dragged along, repeatedly bleating, But, Mummy, when he comes back, how will he know where we've gone? The lawyer looked at me sympathetically as I took a sip from the glass of water that had been thoughtfully placed in front of me, next to the square box of tissues. This lawyer was nothing if not prepared, though I doubted he had seen a situation quite like this before. "So what you're saying is that I own fifty percent of a property on which I have to pay one hundred percent of the maintenance bills, but there's nothing I can do with it?"
He placed the glasses back on his nose. "Nothing, I'm afraid." He paused. "Unless you want to live in it, of course."
I didn't. I don't. Yet here I am. Temporarily.
Carrie unpacks the food we bought en route at what Google had told us was the nearest supermarket, whilst I wander through the rooms; I suspect she is trying to give me space to unpack my memories alone. But any such memories, if they do exist, are keen to stay neatly parceled up. The kitchen is large, farmhouse style, and has an ancient-looking range cooker that I leave Carrie to tinker with. ThereÕs a boot room, a lounge, a formal dining room with what looks like original wood paneling and another reception room on the ground floor; all are dated, but clean and bright-there is nothing that gives rise to the unease I felt on arrival. The wide staircase up the center of the house with its stained wooden banisters catches at me-do I remember tumbling down those stairs to run out onto the wide lawn?-but I cannot tell which way to turn at the top to find whichever bedroom had been mine. There are three good-sized bedrooms on this floor, and a large family bathroom with a raised cistern and a chain pull on the toilet that seems fuzzily familiar. All the walls have been painted an off-white, and the furniture is a cheery pine. The impression is of a bright and breezy mid-level bed-and-breakfast. My mother was perhaps unaware of the legal position, or perhaps, characteristically, she chose to ignore inconvenient truths; in any case, according to Pete, sheÕs been blithely renting out the place for years. The master suite is on this floor too, but I leave it for last and head up a much narrower staircase to the top floor, which is far less attractive on account of lower ceilings and small windows. There are three more bedrooms up here, of awkward shape, and another bathroom, and a door which on inspection is locked.
Locked. That puzzles me for a moment until I recall the managing agent telling us when we collected the keys that it's a storage room-most rented houses apparently have a secure area where the owners can leave some things. But what would my mother have left in here? As far as I know, she never came back to the Manse. Did we leave some things behind when we bolted all those years ago?
I try the door again, but there's no mistake: it's most definitely locked. The smooth round knob of the door stares unblinking at me as if it can see through me, right to the center of my unease. I can imagine that dull gold sphere growing in my mind, until it throbs and pulses and burns away other thoughts-but I won't allow it. I will get the keys and open it right away.
On the way back down the stairs, I hear a snatch of music. Carrie must have found a radio. She likes to have noise in the background, a television or a radio or an iPod with speakers; I'm learning these things about her. I suppose I will learn a lot more as we live together in the coming weeks. If she does live with me, that is-when I suggested she stay with me in the Manse, I was more than prepared for her to politely decline. I'm still half expecting her to announce that she's actually found a flat in Edinburgh for the duration of the play she's in, which would surely be much more convenient for her. I haven't lived with Carrie since I left my mother's home at eighteen for university, and I've probably only seen her three or four times since she went to university herself four years ago. My fault, entirely. I could have handled things differently. I should have handled things differently.
The master bedroom door is open (was it open before?) and it stops me in my tracks: from the hallway, I can see the spectacular view afforded by the wide windows, over the lawn and the road and out across the stream that's hidden by trees up to the craggy hilltops on the other side of the narrow valley. It's a landscape of moss greens and bracken browns and gray granite, with the occasional splash of bright yellow April daffodils. An ancient landscape: one that makes no attempts to hide its years, stoically unflinching and contemptible of the petty jealousies and small prides of those who walk across it. The house is well suited to it-not this version with its bright pine beds and whitewashed walls, but the one I saw when I arrived. The Manse that lies beneath.
I take a small step into the bedroom, and as I do, I am suddenly absolutely sure the bed will be to the right of the doorway, facing those windows: a memory is slowly unraveling, a memory of entering this room in dim light, of walking all the way around the high bed to clamber onto the other side-a big scramble for a little person-where my father lay, warm and solid.
But then I stop. The bed isn't where I expect it. It's at ninety degrees, the wooden headboard against the adjoining wall, a cheerful purple throw spread across the white duvet. The smell is wrong, too: there's the vaguest hint of something sickly sweet on top of a suspicion of stale cigarette smoke. I find myself putting a hand on the wall for balance. Florence and the Machine floats up from the kitchen, telling me I've got the love they need. Before I've made a conscious decision, I'm halfway down the stairs heading for the kitchen. Carrie looks up from inspecting the contents of a drawer as I enter. "This place is at least well kitted out for the basics," she says cheerfully, bumping the drawer closed with her hip. "I made you a cup of tea."
Reading Group Guide
The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott
Questions for Discussion
1.The development of Carrie and Ailsa’s relationship is central to the novel. Carrie feels that Ailsa abandoned her when she left home. Is this fair? What responsibility do we have toward our siblings?
2.The novel is set in Scotland, essentially in the landscape of the author’s childhood. Do you think the story would have had the same impact in a different setting? How much does setting contribute to the tone of a novel?
3.Ailsa claims that “to all intents and purposes, Carrie and I had different mothers.” Do you think this can be said of all siblings? Is everyone’s childhood experience unique?
4.What do you think was the most likely cause of Ailsa’s father’s disappearance?
5.The author uses the Manse as if it is a major character in the novel. How did that approach contribute to building suspense?
6.Do you think that Ailsa’s professional career would have been helped or hindered by her relationship with Jonathan?
7.Ben has never told anyone about what they found in the woods out of loyalty to Fiona. Do you think that was the right decision? What would you have done?
8.Glen McCue appears to regret the manner in which he brought up Fiona and Jamie, commenting that he should have “been gentler, maybe. Fewer thrashings and more talking. Like all these modern dads I keep hearing about.” Is it fair to judge previous generations by the moral and ethical yardsticks of the modern day?
9.Ailsa lies to the police under duress from Carrie. Would you have done the same?
10.Who do you think had the most suspicious interest in the Manse?
11.At the end of the novel, Ailsa feels ambivalent as to whether she believes in “Fi facts.” When you were reading the novel, did you have a strong opinion, or did you also feel ambivalent? Do you believe Fi is right about how time can “slip”?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wow!! Great read, fast paced, keeps you wondering and on your toes. There is such a dynamic relationship between all the characters that make them feel known to the reader. The ending is not expected at all, such a great spin!! Lexie Elliott gives just enough closure at the end of the book to pull everything together. I would definitely read other books from this author, really enjoyed her writing style.
This book is very much a page turner, lots of twists which keep you guessing until the end and quite spooky in places. The book is about two half sisters whose Mother has just died, one of the girls Ailsa has just inherited a very large house in a remote part of Scotland. Both Ailsa and Chloe go to stay at the house with the intention of trying to sell it as they both have lives elsewhere. Ailsa's Father went missing from the house when she was a child and has never been seen again, the villagers believe that he stole jewels from the jewellers where he worked and disappeared, until he is found the house can't be sold as he owns half of it. When the girls get to the house strange things start to happen, ranging from doors slamming for no reason to dead animals left on the door step, it is obvious that someone wants the girls to leave, but who and for what reason. This book is excellent and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves psychological thrillers.
The basic premise of the book is that Ailsa Calder is left her mother's half of her former childhood home, a remote Scottish Manse. This leads her to reminiscences of her father who has been missing since she was 7 and to reconnect with her half sister Carrie. It also gives her time to pause and consider her role as a field news producer and her subsequent relationship with a much older broadcast journalist. Slotted in to the Crime and Mystery genre by the publishers, you do start to wonder where either of those fit in. Is it the mystery of her father's death? Is it the crime of the diamonds that went missing with him? Certainly her father, Martin Calder, plays a large part in the book despite being missing. Each chapter is preceeded by a short paragraph detailing what Ailsa thinks he might be up to, where he might have vanished to and very much hinging on the fact that he is alive. Then, as events at The Manse start to catch up with her the thoughts become darker as she presumes he has met his death in a multitude of countries, in a multitude of ways. Then you have The Manse itself, the house is very definitely set up as being a character in it's own right. Initially this works well. From Ailsa and Carrie's arrival at the property and the claustrophobia Ailsa feels, despite the sheer size of the property. Unfortunately, the early tension is dissipated by the glacial pace of the story. There is a constant rehashing of how Ailsa feels watched and unsafe in the house, how she can't sleep, how things happen but she is not sure if she is imagining them or if they are real. I really struggled with this book as nothing really happens that draws you in to the story or the characters. Ailsa herself is pretty much moribund and whiny, Carrie is flighty and never really exposes herself to the reader. Even worse you then have the friendly neighbour who intrudes on their first night and his bizarre sister. A range of stereotypical villagers who are either super friendly or completely antagonistic to the sisters. The biggest issue is that it treads water for around 300 pages and then everything rushes to an ending that is, not to put too fine a point on it, ludicrous. It turns out that there are lots of little crimes revealed in the book, there are some mysterys that get answered, and some that don't. However, the main thrust of the book seems to be trying to unsettle the reader and give the impression that The Manse is somehow sentient. I'm not entirely sure what the author was going for with the tale but it falls through so many gaps of genre and disappears down it's own plot holes frequently that it is pretty much unreadable in it's current format. There is a good story battling to get out but page count seems to have triumphed and resulted in a book twice the length it needed to be to really ratchet up tension and involve the reader. THIS IS AN HONEST REVIEW OF A FREE COPY OF THE BOOK RECEIVED FROM READERS FIRST.
So...you are telling me that only half of this house is mine and I can’t sell it until we find my father who disappeared twenty-seven years ago? The only other choice Ailsa Calder had was to occupy the house which held memories both good and bad. She finds out there are more bad associations with the house than good. The neighbors have been freely roaming in it, and the town’s residents have nothing good to say about her father who disappeared with diamonds. Along with all the trouble with the residents, odd things also happen in the house itself. Ms. Elliott’s writing style is descriptive, but the book is a bit slow and focuses on where Ailsa’s father could be or whether he is dead and on the house that seems to be haunted. At the end of each chapter, a blurb is added about where her father may be or where he may have been all these years. The odd and different characters do pull the story line along and work well together as one mystery after another comes to the surface along with secrets that are revealed. If you are a fan of old houses, family secrets, sibling rivalry, family sagas, mysteries, and some unresolved issues, THE MISSING YEARS is be a book you will want to read. You just need to move slowly along with the characters and the story line as everything is revealed in the very peculiar, twisted wrap up. 4/5 This book was given to me as an ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Very enjoyable and suspenseful read.
3.5 stars Ailsa Calder has invited her sister to live with her. I loved that she opened her heart and her home to a sister that she hasn’t had a good relationship with for quite some time. Things start happening when they move into the house that is in the middle of nowhere. These things only seem to happen to Ailsa and she isn’t sure if she is going crazy or if she someone is trying to chase her away from the house she just inherited. I wondered if something was haunting the house, was someone setting it up to scare Ailsa away, what was going on. The writing was good, it was not a quick read. I found it easy to put the book down and walk away but I was always pulled back to picking it up. The characters were not easy to connect with, I think there was too much history that wasn’t told between them to be able to connect with them. Both sisters seemed to keep their guard up and keep their hearts protected. I was excited to see how it would all come together. The ending surprised me, yet looking back I can see how it ended as it did. Overall, I enjoyed the story. I liked the setting, and the characters kept it all interesting.