This lovely novel would have completely passed me by had it not been for Fleur Fisher’s marvellous review. Emma Carroll’s debut, Frost Hollow Hall, begins in the winter of 1881, in a small village named Frostcombe. The novel was inspired by a ‘winter’s day from Emma’s childhood’, and the vividness of the setting is built up from the very first page.
Frost Hollow Hall begins with an article in the Combe Vale Chronicle dating from February 1871. It describes the way in which Viscount Barrington, the owner of the Frost Hollow Hall estate, loses his only son, Christopher, known throughout as Kit, who ‘died tragically yesterday afternoon whilst skating alone on a frozen lake in the grounds’.
The main thread of the novel begins in the first chapter, when our young narrator, Tilly Higgins, is introduced. Her voice immediately sets out her character: ‘I was proper fed up with waiting. I’d been on look-out now for two whole hours and there was still no sign of Pa’. He is due home from ‘a stint on the railways’, bringing with him much needed money to pay the family’s rent. Tilly makes it clear that they are poor: ‘We didn’t even own enough chairs for us all to sit down at the same time’, and so when her father fails to turn up, she begins to worry.
That same morning, Tilly is dared to go ice skating on the lake at Frost Hollow Hall, a fair walk from her home, by a boy named Will Potter. ‘No one went near Frost Hollow Hall’, she tells us, ‘not since that boy died there in the lake’. Whilst she is on the lake, she heeds no warning from Will to steer clear of the thinner ice, and finds herself underwater: ‘Slowly, gently, the lake closed over my head and all went quiet but for the blood pounding in my ears. I went down and down into blackness’. Whilst she is underwater, she sees ‘the most perfect creature… My very own angel, beautiful and full of light’ moving toward her. She believes that this vision is responsible for saving her life, and quickly attributes the vision to that of Kit.
At the start of the novel, Tilly works as a ‘pupil-helper’ at her local school, ‘cleaning slates and carrying coal and showing the young ones how to read’. As soon as she becomes fascinated with Kit and how he came to drown, however, she takes up a place as a housemaid at Frost Hollow Hall so that she is able to find out more about him. She believes that she can help him, and bravely tries to do so.
Tilly’s narrative voice is childishly amusing at times. She thinks that Will Potter is ‘an irksome wretch’ and ‘a daft lummox’, and she is always ready to offer opinions on everything which she encounters. Carroll has written Frost Hollow Hall wonderfully, and her story is very well imagined. Lots of mysteries are tied in throughout, and there is not a single page which does not vividly capture the imagination. The novel is intriguing and well paced throughout. Carroll has captured the voice of her young narrator, and has made it marvellously consistent. The sense of time and place are well established, as is the Higgins’ family dynamic and the relationships between the characters.
Frost Hollow Hall is really creepy at times, and is sure to chill a child to the bone whilst leaving them longing to know what happens next. It is a novel which I will highly recommend to all.