THE ALEXANDRITE by Dione Jones (Cloud Ink Press, $29.95) The Alexandrite, the debut novel by Auckland writer Dione Jones, is an enthralling mystery that reaches back to Tsarist Russia and World War
I to end up in contemporary New Zealand. Along the way, readers are immersed in a rich story that challenges us to think about race, class, family secrets and family ties.
The book opens after Wellington mathematician Professor Geoffrey Cook has arrived at Ashly House in England. We learn that he has mysteriously died on the estate’s grounds with a suggestive letter and a luminous stone on his person. Professor Cook’s brother, who insists there has been foul play, tells a reporter back in New Zealand that “his brother was visiting a powerful family about a secret they didn’t want revealed”.
Jones’ fast-paced, engrossing novel shuttles back and forth between England during WWI, the 1940s and then 2013 and New Zealand in the 1930s, 80s and 2013.
The plot contains several threads that come together to form a complex story about the various ways that one family both knowingly and unknowingly affected change in many lives.
The once-grand family is now, as we meet them in 2013, only the fallen-on-hard times Lady Scawton and her insufferable son Sir Charles. Their household, which has seen better days, is cared for by their canny, forbearing butler,godley. As the novel dips back in time, we come to know the older generations of the Scawton line as well as all manner of household help from Ashly House’s more heady days.
As Lady Scawton — Pamela — sets out to learn why the late Professor Cook was at Ashly House and what the cryptic letter and beautiful stone he was carrying might mean, she begins a journey that leads her to unexpected revelations about her English family’s connections, both hidden and acknowledged in New Zealand.
What Pamela eventually learns causes her to reconsider all that she thought she once understood. As Pamela muses to herself, “It had taken the dead body of a stranger, who had been carrying a threatening letter and a mysterious stone, to prompt this whole trail of memories and revelations.”
For Pamela, the mystery at the centre of this novel upends all that had once seemed set in stone.