Book Review: Aunt Dimity and the Enchanted Cottage by Nancy Atherton

In the twenty-fifth installment of the Aunt Dimity series from Nancy Atherton, an inscrutable newcomer arrives in Finch and Lori discovers that the past is not always what it seems...

Crispin Windle is the newest resident of Pussywillows, a romantic riverside cottage. Will Pussywillows work its magic on widower Windle? It’s early May and spring is in full bloom. The residents of Finch have an inviolable ritual that dictates how they extend a hand of friendship. They give newcomers three days of grace to settle in and then they descend, sharing a signature dish or an offer to stroll beside the river—gestures geared to elicit an embrace of village life. The need to welcome newbies and gently educate them in Finch’s mores is vital. Shopkeeper Peggy Taxman is particularly shameless in her quest to have all hands on deck.  Mr. Windle better take care: “If Mr. Windle was too weak to resist her blandishments, he’d find himself behind the till at the flower show and the bake sale as well as the village fete.” 

No one leaves anything to chance on the morning of move-in day. American transplant Lori Willis (née Shepherd) and her friends deftly maneuver at Sally Cook’s tearoom to ensure they have the best vantage point to watch the show unfold at Pussywillows. They observe, examine, and dissect each object the movers carry into the house. Unfortunately, it’s a disappointment. The move-in takes no time at all. Windle’s belongings are mundane and underwhelming. There’s nary a sighting of the new occupant. How anticlimactic. 

When Lori gets home, she goes to her study and starts conversing, via handwritten questions and answers, with her dearly departed Aunt Dimity Westwood.  You might call the relationship between the two women supernatural or otherworldly but it’s quintessentially cozy and English. Aunt Dimity was a dear friend of Lori’s mother and at a time when Lori was desperately unhappy and in need of a fresh start, Aunt Dimity left her a cottage in a new country, offering her a fresh lease on life. It’s been harmonious ever since: Lori has lived in Finch for more than a decade. She juggles “the challenging roles of wife, mother, friend, neighbor, gossipmonger par excellence, and community volunteer.” She’s married to American lawyer Bill Willis and has twins Will and Rob, and Bess, a rambunctious toddler. There’s something both comforting and alluring about a village in the Cotswolds, albeit one that attracts an untoward number of mysteries.

Crispin Windle repels all the efforts of folks who want to befriend him. He grudgingly accepts casseroles and baked goods, listens with barely concealed impatience to proffered advice, and seemingly never ventures out of his new home. Lori is an inveterate busybody and worrywart: she’s convinced that something’s seriously amiss with the curmudgeonly Mr. Windle. She and her friend Tommy Prescott, who recently moved to Finch, spot Mr. Windle on a bridge and they are dreadfully alarmed.

His gaze drifted slowly from the bridge’s arch to the river’s rippling surface and back again. His pale features were expressionless, as blank and empty as a block of stone until, abruptly, and for no more than an instant, his breath seemed to catch in his throat and his gray eyes filled with tears. He looked in that brief moment like a man bereft of hope, a man so broken he could scarcely bear the weight of his own thoughts. I could almost see a cloud of anguish close around him as, silently, and once again blank-faced, he reentered his new home and shut the door.

They break the unwritten law that newcomers to Finch must be left alone for three days but needs must. Lori and Tommy batter Mr. Windle’s door until he opens it and Lori blurts out that she’s afraid he might be contemplating suicide. But Mr. Windle is quick to assure them he’s not planning to kill himself. They are somewhat but not entirely reassured and continue to keep an eye on him. A “chance meeting” results in Mr. Windle, Lori, and Tommy making a startling discovery. Omniscient Aunt Dimity, via her exquisite copperplate script, tells Lori that they have uncovered a hidden part of the village’s history—the remains of a Victorian woolen mill. Finch is so proud of its history—Lori wonders why it isn’t common knowledge. The reason soon becomes clear when they stumble upon the graves of children who died working at the mill. Crispin Windle is a retired professor of history with a focus on Derbyshire’s industrial history. He suspected children had been cruelly abused and it’s one of the reasons he moved to Finch.

British philosopher and archaeologist R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) wrote,

“History is for human self-knowledge… the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.”

Who were these nameless children? How will the village of Finch react when they learn about the evil neglect of children in their very own backyard? Aunt Dimity and the Enchanted Cottage is a prickly and provocative exploration of a village’s past, all whilst allowing readers to revisit a beloved destination.

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