I love a ghost story, but I am very picky when it comes to picking up new ones, because I was spoiled at a very young age when I read the work of a wonderful array of authors in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories and two more collections that followed that one.
This is a rare case of a new ghost story catching and holding my attention.
I was intrigued by the setting and by the central character.
The story is set in England, towards the end of the Great War; a time when so many people were haunted by the deaths of young men far from home. Stella Marcham was one of those people. She had been a VAD nurse, she had worked hard and well, but she had been sent home after she was stricken by grief over the death of her fiancé Gerald.
Stella’s parents were sympathetic, but as time passed they found it hard to deal with and they failed to understand why she couldn’t come to terms with what had happened and start to live again. They began to wonder if their daughter was mentally ill.
They thought that a change of scene might help her, and an interesting opportunity presented itself. Stella’s sister Madeleine was pregnant, and her husband had insisted that she left London for the the safety of the countryside. He had left her in the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell, st his family’s country home, Greyswick while he continued his war work in the city. Stella would be a companion for Madeleine, and Madeleine would be a distraction for Stella.
The two sisters were delighted to be reunited; but Stella was concerned about her sister. Madeleine was unsettled, unhappy, and inexplicably fearful. Lady Brightwell said that she was foolish, that nothing could be wrong, but Stella knew her sister too well to believe that and she tried to work out what the problem might be.
It wasn’t long before she saw the first signs.
And then there was a noise in the night: Stella and Madeleine – and no one else – heard the clear and inexplicable sound of a child crying ….
The story is captivating, the prose is lovely and nicely understated – I loved that it left space for me to think and to ponder. The description of the house and its grounds brought the setting to life; and the period, the place and the mood were wonderfully evoked.
The ghost story works well; there are times when it is genuinely frightening, and there are times when it is clear that there is a desperately sad story behind the haunting of Greyswick.
The human story wrapped around this ghost story had much to say.
It spoke of the position of women in a world where men govern society and determine how they should live; and of how that could make women victims, and of how women might use the little power that had for good or for bad.
It spoke of that society’s treatment of grief and of mental disturbance; and of how those things could make a person terribly vulnerable.
Most of all it spoke about love and loss, through Stella’s story and through other plot strands. As Stella strove to help her sister and to uncover the secrets of the house, she knew that she had to be strong; and though she would always grieve for Gerald she began to find a little comfort in the memory of him and of the time they had spent together. That was beautifully and sensitively done,
Of course, all of this only works if there is a cast of characters who are real and believable. This book has that. I was particularly taken with Stella, with her maid, Annie, who came from a family said to have psychic powers, and with the way their relationship moved from the traditional one mistress and servant to a very different one where the servant was superior to her mistress. Annie brought something different and distinctive to this tale, as did the three women who had lived in the house for many years – its mistress, her companion and her housekeeper. A wonderfully diverse cast of women!
I worked out how the story would play out a little earlier that I feel I should have, I found it predictable and a little contrived in places, and I think that this would have been a better book if certain of the story-lines had been pruned a little; but I was captivated from start to finish.
I could easily believe that the author had read and loved and learned from the work in those collections of ghost stories that I love and remember so well.
This book isn’t that good, but it is very good; beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and holding a story that has much to say and much to haunt its readers.