The loveliest image in Phillipa Bowers’s The Secrets of the Cave is the form of a woman, carved into the rock of the cave by the flow of the spring waters. At her feet, the pure water gathers in a pool lined with pink and red crystals. The water looks blood-red because of those crystals. The Lady in the cave is never described but frequently evoked in this book, which follows a young woman in England from 1930 until the end of World War II.
Betty, the main character of The Secrets of the Cave, is the younger of two sisters living in the rural village of Oakley Vale. Betty and her sister Kate are from a long line of women charged to protect the cave. Their grandmother was an herbalist, feared but frequently consulted by the village women, and Betty has the Sight. If she touches an object, she gets flashes about the life of the owner. Betty seems to be about thirteen when the book opens, and she wants to leave Oakley Vale and become a film star. Her life in the small village has been ruined, in her opinion, by the behavior of her older sister Kate, who is living openly with a married man.
While in the cave, Betty scavenges a scrap of wood that provides her with a psychic link to Caitlin, a twelfth-century ancestor charged with guarding the cave. Throughout Betty’s adventures, she observes Caitlin’s life through dreams or trances.
After an argument with Kate, Betty runs away to London. She finds a job as a companion to a bedridden woman. When she is fired from that position, she becomes a dancer at a men’s club called The Gentlemen’s Relish, using henna to dye her blond hair red and going by the name of Foxy. She makes close friendships with a few of the dancers and with the woman who runs the club, Madame la Fay (no relation to King Arthur’s half-sister). Soon Foxy is the mistress of a Member of Parliament, a kept woman.
The point of the book seems to be that Betty must have an adventure in the world and experience love, grief, pain and loss before she is ready to come back and take her place in the village as the guardian of the cave. Her interesting magical abilities are not part of that quest. In the twelfth century, Caitlin’s magical abilities are also no protection against rape (repeated), murder (her mother is killed in front of her), and grief and loss. Caitlin’s story starts off as if it will run parallel to Betty’s but soon dwindles until it’s little more than a condiment on the Blue Plate Special that is Betty’s life.
Since the magic is not front and center, you would think the time period would be, especially the first half of the book, which takes place in a society-changing time in Britain’s history. The Gentlemen’s Relish is an interesting place with an interesting collection of characters and could have had a lot to say about what life was like after World War I, but none of that is addressed. There is not enough magic, and not enough history, in this historical fantasy.
This leads to my second problem with the book. I don’t know who the intended audience is. Based on the cover and the blurbs on the back, I think this is aimed at young adults. In that case, the author should explain why the King of England had to give up his throne in order to marry a woman who’d been divorced. Betty could have responded to this scandal by comparing her own situation to that of the man who gave up a kingdom for the woman he loved, but she doesn’t. As the story moves forward in time into World War II, Betty and other characters make reference to key aspects of the war, like the migration of children out of London, the devastating London bombing, and things like ration books, but nothing is explained.
It may be that the author is trying to cover too much ground here. Fifteen years, plus the 1100s, is a lot of time, and Bowers is too rushed to let emotional resonance develop. About halfway through the book, Betty suffers a terrible loss. She is so undone that she falls into a trance or coma for several days. Then life goes on, and the process of grief is not explored. She never has the experience of seeing someone who reminds her of her lost loved one, or thinking about how old they’d be now, or remembering that it’s their birthday. Her recollections of the lost person arise because of plot mechanics, not organically from her character. It is only in the last quarter of the book that Betty’s Sight suddenly assumes significance, and it is too convenient.
This is my third problem with the book. The plot mechanics regarding Betty’s loss are both implausible and completely predictable, and it makes Betty seem stupid that she doesn’t figure out what’s going on much sooner. Without spoiling too much, the telegram Betty so conveniently receives is either completely unbelievable or a trick, but Bowers never explains it. It could be so obviously a trick that she feels she doesn’t have to, but then why doesn’t Betty realize it? Why doesn’t Betty ask herself how the purported author of the telegram even knew where she was living?
Secrets of the Cave did not satisfy me but there are some beautiful moments. Bowers heads each chapter with a bit of herbal lore that is quite charming. The secret of the cave is delightful, and I do like the idea of a bloodline extending back a thousand years to protect that secret. Unfortunately, the book squanders opportunities. It is predictable. Supposedly about magic and history, it skimps on both.