The Glass House by Eve Chase (2020)

Eve Chase has a gift for spinning stories, bringing characters to life, and making glorious houses live and breathe.

This book begins with a report of the discovery of a body deep in a forest, and then comes the house.

Behind a tall rusting gate, Foxcote manor erupts from the undergrowth, as if a geological heave has lifted it from the woodland floor. A wrecked beauty, the old house’s mullioned windows blink drunkenly, in the stippled evening sunlight. Colossal trees overhang a sweep of red-tiled roof that sags in the middle, like a snapped spine, so the chimney’s tilt at odd angles. Ivy suckers up the timber and brick-gabled facade, dense, bristling, alive with dozens of tiny darting birds, a billowing veil of bees …

That house is the focus of three entwined narratives, two from the past and one from the presents, telling a story of mothers and daughters, of love and loss, and of history and its consequences.

Rita came to Foxcote, that wonderful country home, as the nanny of two children whose family who had just suffered a terrible trauma. She wasn’t entirely happy about that, as becoming a nanny to a wealthy family in London had been her dream job, but she loved her charges and she know that they needed her, more than every now that their mother was mentally frail.

She was a city girl but she came to love the country.

The father of the family had to stay in London, his request that she send him regular reports made her uncomfortable, and what was happening to his wife and children – especially when one particular person visited – gave her serious cause for conccern.

Another voice from the past filled out the story, speaking of things that Sylvie didn’t see or know.

Years later, Sylvie was making plans to leave her husband. They were calling it a trial separation, but she knew that they had drifted apart and that it was time for a permanent change.

She felt positive about the future, but her plans had to be put on hold when a terrible accident left her usually bright and active mother in a comma. Her daughter’s reaction to that was not what she expected, Sylvie suspected that something was very wrong, because that had always been very close and they always talked about anything and everything.

I was captivated by both stories, past and present. Because the characters and relationships were so beautifully drawn that they lived and breathed, that they drew me in and made me care and want to know what would happen. Because the writing was so rich and evocative that the I felt that I really knew the times and places that the story visited.

At first there was nothing to indicate what would tie the stories together, but hints and facts were dropped in a way that was quite perfectly judged, until I knew and understood everything.

I wish that I could stop there, but I can’t.

The early chapters were perfect, but as time went on I worried that two serious incidents in the story set in the past would be difficult to resolve. The plot, beautifully constructed though it was, took the lustre from the characters and the relationships. They needed space to shine, but they were weighed down and stretched too far by an excess of story.

I was able to keep faith for most of the book, but I found that in the later chapters I couldn’t help feeling that the author spoilt her own story by trying to account for everything and everyone, and by tying the story set it the past and the story set in the present together much, much too tightly.

That is why, though I found much to love in this book, though it never lost its hold on me, I couldn’t love it as much as I hoped I would, or as much as I loved Eve Chase’s last book.

I hope that this wasn’t a sign that the author isn’t running out of ideas for this type or book, that she isn’t trapped in a niche or under pressure to come up with new ideas to quickly. I hope that this is just a mis-step.

Maybe it was the literary equivalent of an artist who doesn’t know when to put her brush down. I say that because I love the pictures that this book painted, but I need to stand back and not look too closely at some of the details.

The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase (2018)

I wanted a book that would pull me out of this cold, dark winter, a book that would would hold me captive, and this book did that wonderfully well.

Two narratives, separated by fifty years, tell a story of sisters and secrets, of an unsolved mystery and its consequences, and of how family relationships are changed by events and by the passage of time.

The first story is told by fifteen year-old Margot Wilde, the third of four sisters who live a happy, bohemian life in fifties London. When their widowed mother is presented with the chance of a summer in Morocco she seizes it, and sends her girls to stay with their Aunt Sibyl and Uncle Perry at Applegate Manor in the Cotswolds. It would be their first visit since their cousin Audrey had disappeared five years earlier.

Margot had been particularly close to Audrey, they had always resembled one another; and when she was in her family home, when she saw how deeply her disappearance still troubled her aunt, she couldn’t help being drawn into the life that he cousin had left behind and being troubled by the unsolved mystery.

It was unsettling for all four sisters, and because the summer was warm they were able to spend much of their time outside, That was how they came to meet Tom and Harry Gore, whose family spent their summers at the neighbouring Coniston Place. And that was what unsettled the relationship between the four sisters ….

The second story is told by thirty-five year-old Jessie, who has persuaded her husband to but Applegate Manor. It stretched their finances, almost to breaking point, but Jessie was sure that moving out of London and settling in the country was the best thing for her family. It would allow her to give her young daughter the upbringing she wanted,; it would give her a chance to improve her relationship with her stepdaughter, who she didn’t think had been able to come to terms with her mother’s death a few years earlier; and it would allow her to escape from the very long shadow cast by her husband’s first wife.

None of that would be simple, nothing really went to plan, and when she learned the history of her new home Jessie began to question whether she had really done the right thing for her family ….

I was captivated by each story, because both narratives had the ring of truth as they spoke in their different ways of evolving family relationships, of the ways that the past can haunt the present, and the complications the come with growing up.

The echoes and the differences were beautifully handled,  with subtlety and the lightness of touch that made it feel completely natural and right. I particularly liked the contrast between the bright and warm summer days of the past and the cold and wet days of the present.

Of course, all of that would only work if the characters were engaging, and they were. They lived and breathed, and they pulled me right into their stories. I always love stories about sisters and I loved that these sisters were both distinctive and alike, and that the relationships between them were so very well drawn. The characters of step-mother and step-daughter in the present day were just as well done, and I was very impressed by the way that the relationship between the two was drawn and the way that it evolved.

The plot was beautifully and thoughtfully constructed; and there were times when I saw exactly where the story was going and there were times when my expectations were very cleverly subverted. The way that the two stories came together was particularly good, and I was held to the very last page.

The writing was the best thing of all. It was vivid, it was evocative, and it was impressionistic. I was never really aware that I was reading descriptive passages, that I was reading the narrator’s thoughts, and yet I drew so much about the times, about the places, about the lives being lived, from the two narratives.

Houses are never just houses. I’m quite sure of this now. We leave particles behind, dust and dreams, fingerprints buried on wallpapers, our tread in the wear of the stairs. And we take bits of the houses with us. In my case, a love of the smell of wax polish on sun-warmed oak, late summer filtering through stained glass. We grow up. We stay the same. We move away, but we live forever where we were most alive.

I can easily forgive some things that felt improbable, some things that fell into place too easily, because there were so many more things in this book that I loved.

It was one of those books that made me think that the author and I have read and loved many of the same books.

I picked up her previous book from the library today, and I am looking forward to what comes next.