Saturday, June 01, 2013

John Boyne's This House is Haunted, an eerie Victorian tale of the supernatural


John Boyne applies his dependably fluid writing style to this eerie Victorian ghost story, which offers an unsettling—in a good way—blend of the conventional and the unexpected. Having enjoyed The House of Special Purpose earlier this year, I couldn't resist the opportunity to read his newest, This House is Haunted.

"I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father," Eliza Caine begins.  In London in 1867, after her ailing father dies following a rainy excursion to hear Dickens read his spine-tingling new ghost story, Eliza is left alone and bereft. Overcome by grief and short on cash for the rent, she grabs the first opportunity she sees.

An "H Bennet" has advertised in the newspaper for a governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. Even knowing little about the environment or her employer, Eliza quits her job as a teacher for "small girls" and boards a train to the country.

In this and in other circumstances, Eliza presents an occasionally frustrating combination of determination and naiveté, one not uncommon to Gothic heroines. Her loyalty and inner strength make her a compassionate, sympathetic protagonist.

Compared to the smoke-filled, crowded city, the Norfolk countryside has plenty of fresh air and open space, but Gaudlin Hall is an imposing old mansion that would give anyone the creeps. The children of the house, the oddly precocious Isabella and her sweet but peculiar younger brother Eustace, have no adult supervision other than Eliza. Their family lawyer refuses to speak with her, local townspeople avoid her once they learn where she works, and the one servant she can find isn't talking. The mysterious “H Bennet” isn’t anywhere around, either.

On Eliza's first night at the house, a malevolent presence makes itself known. Whatever (or whoever) it is wants her gone. Even though she clings to rational explanations for her violent "accidents" past the point of plausibility, she's made of stern stuff and knows she must stay and protect her charges. As the hauntings continue and she meets with more woes, she musters up the courage to solve the mystery of Gaudlin Hall's past.

The storyline drew me in with its clear, logical prose and held me gripped with its escalating tension. Even the motivation behind the malice is well thought out: the supernatural occurrences have chillingly lucid reasoning behind them. The novel acknowledges Victorian preoccupations and sensibilities, from the dandy-horse Eliza rides into the village (and is forced off of by an unnatural gust of wind) to a stuffy old clerk’s condescending attitude towards women.

The archetypal setting and premise will be familiar ground to anyone who reads Gothics, and there are nods to several well-known novels within—I won’t say which. Maybe due to Eliza's confident narration, the novel never flat-out terrified me, but I appreciated the dramatic plotting and found myself startled by a few revelations. Boyne knows the precise moment to shake things up with a sudden, sharp surprise.

This House is Haunted was published by Doubleday UK in late April at £14.99 (hb, 304pp).  American readers can find it in bookstores this October (Other Press, $14.95, trade pb), and Doubleday Canada publishes it the same month ($24.95). Thanks to Doubleday UK for sending me a review copy.

11 comments:

  1. I'm definitely adding this one to my TBR pile! Thanks for the great review, Sarah.

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    1. Thanks, Melissa! I've just gone back and added the Canadian pub details (also October, alas). I really like Boyne's writing style; it's so easy to read and get swept along with the story.

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  2. I actually saw this one on Amazon I believe last week and added it to my wish list! So glad it is as well written as it sounded!

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    1. It's pure fun - I read it in a day and a half!

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  3. Ooooh! I'll look for it as soon as I get to Oxford this summer.

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    1. Oxford - I'll say Ooooh to that! Hope you like it too (and have a great time!).

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  4. I have to applaud the first line!

    (And by the way, I just discovered that Dickens wrote an English history for children--it's dense, but his "asides" are quite opinionated and amusing. Not much use for religion, and always suspicious of powerful women.)

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    1. I didn't know that. A dense book for children - hmm. Sounds potentially entertaining, though.

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  5. I love a good Victorian ghost story!

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    1. This one should deliver :)

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  6. This is the first I have heard of this! Looking forward to reading it!

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