38. Midnight in Your Arms by Morgan Kelly

Published in 2012 by Avon Impulse.

“Her dreams would take her there, and she would run through its sunlit, eerie halls as free as a little deer in the wood. It was the first time she understood that sunlight did not dispel terror, any more than terror was wholly unenjoyable. Rather, she found she liked being terrified. It was a feeling so pure, so deep, that everything else quite paled in comparison. Stonecross was both her worst nightmare and her deepest wish fulfilled. It was with her in every season, at any time of day or night. She need only close her eyes, and step into her dreams, like Alice through the looking glass.”

Laura Dearborn is no stranger to ghosts. They have whispered their secrets, grievances and regrets into her ears for much of her life. It is only in the aftermath of World War I that necessity impels her to use these skills for sustenance. The burden of collecting shillings for a psychic medium’s soul-wearying work swiftly takes its toll, so when Laura receives word of a most startling inheritance, she wastes little time. Bound and determined to embrace Stonecross Hall as her own — as she has long felt in her bones, reason be damned, that it must be hers — she finds herself thrown into the non-corporeal arms of Alaric Storm III, a Crimean war veteran who reigned and brooded behind Stonecross’ fine mullioned windows … some sixty years’ hence.

There is a well-stocked arsenal of reasons why Midnight in Your Arms could spoil one for regular romance reading, not least of which is its ornate attention to detail. Many writers in this genre seem to consider that a surfeit of heaving bosoms and undone cummerbunds will compensate for meagre plotting and substandard research — not so with Morgan Kelly’s debut novel. Multiple nods to architectural awareness are made in every description of Stonecross Hall, which, by the end of this supernaturally delightful read, will feel legitimately like a character in its own right. The accoutrements of Laura’s trade; the sharp contrast of fiercely beautiful moorland terrain with soot-choked London’s ennui: these are rendered so convincingly that we taste the sea-salt spray; we see the spirit board’s planchette move with or without the guidance of our shaking fingers.

War stalks the pages of the novel, and the memories of those who have known its bitter draught. Laura and Alaric are haunted by far more than pleasing, maddening glances of each other. They have both seen too much, lived through more than they can forget. As Laura muses, during her first night within Stonecross’ alternately comforting and goosebump-inducing walls,

“She wanted a man who wanted her. So few of the men who had returned seemed to want anything, and she certainly could not see herself with a man who had not fought. It seemed to her that there would be something essential missing, a sort of joint, generational understanding. No one who hadn’t been on the front line could fully understand her. She needed a man who knew what it was like to live with ghosts.”

Our hero and heroine have been tempered by more than cotillions and cocktail parties; theirs are irreversibly wounded lives in which the knowing of each other is an unlooked for bridge of solace — a beacon across dark water that assures with each glinting semaphore, you are not alone. 

That the two lovers should cross paths almost instantaneously seems to be a hallmark of popular contemporary bodicerippers. Midnight in Your Arms shies away from this. Instead of sending Laura and Alaric careening into each other’s clutches on the first page, the writer takes time to establish each of them in their separate, individual worlds. This might not curry favour with readers used to more immediate gratification. In truth, it strikes one as a calculated, bold move — a statement that assures even the most seasoned of romance readers that not everything allegedly outside the realm of ‘serious fiction’ is a foregone conclusion. Kelly’s careful world-establishment, of Laura in the 1920s and Alaric in the 1860s, is a nod to considerate stage setting, infrequently seen in titles of this ilk.

For the ways in which this tale charts new territory for romance writing, it plumbs depths that resound at the heart of any intense love story — that notion of two souls finding their fate in the other. We rarely read romance to be reasoned with, and Kelly’s contemplation of the lengths to which men and women can go to find unison with that truest, unflinching other part of themselves makes for an immensely gratifying, toe-curling read. This story offers us one of the most spectacular leaps of reason, the idea of time that bends to the will of era-crossed inamoratos. It makes it less suited to those who prefer their romance cut and dry, dressed up in business suits and stuffed with dirty martinis. An ideal adorer of Laura and Alaric’s adventure is more likely to be found mapping the constellations and dreaming of Dr. Who, fancying herself at home in the novels of Diana Gabaldon and Ursula K. LeGuin — or one who challenges himself with questions of how Ennis and Jack might have fared as gunslinging vaqueros with robotic arms in 2027.

Laura herself triumphantly declares to Alaric, when their twinned future seems most tenebrous, “Time isn’t what we think it is. It’s something so much more. It’s infinite. This moment is endless. We will be here like this forever, even after we are both dead and gone.” 

Morgan Kelly, with her inaugural Charleston in that vast, glittering ballroom of romantic fiction, made me think of quantum physics side by side with ardent kisses. This, and other her glass-ceiling-shattering feats of talented composition in any genre, makes Midnight in Your Arms an oft-astonishing pleasure. Immediately upon finishing it, I clasped my Kindle tight to my chest, and thought, “I would so love to ask Laura Dearborn on a date… that is, if Alaric Storm III could be prevailed upon to spare her for one dance.” He probably wouldn’t, but, as the best romance reminds us over and over again, stargazing is not merely admissible, but perfectly necessary.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Morgan Kelly, through Avon/ Harper Voyager/ HarperCollinsPublishers for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by her generous gift of gratuitous literature.