Susan Fletcher is an author whose work I have always very much enjoyed. My first encounter with one of her novels was in the glorious Harper Perennial edition of Eve Green, quite some time ago. I have since read almost all of her other work, and when I saw that she had a new novel – House of Glass – coming out in 2018, I borrowed it from the library just as soon as I could.
Many of the reviews of House of Glass mention its ‘darkly gothic’ tone, as well as the way in which it is such things as surprising, moving, and mesmerising. Tracy Chevalier notes that whilst the novel ‘may start as a ghost story’, it ‘turns into something much more profound: a lyrical examination of how women carve lives out of a male-dominated society, even with a war looming that will change everyone.’
House of Glass opens in June 1914, in which protagonist Clara Waterfield is ‘summoned’ to a large house in rural Gloucestershire, in order to fill a glasshouse with ‘exotic plants from Kew Gardens’ at the owner’s request. The house is named, perhaps appropriately given the Gothic atmosphere, Shadowbrook. When Clara arrives, the owner, Mr Fox, is absent, and she is soon informed that he rarely spends any time in the house. Around this time, she begins to hear rumours, and to her, ‘something feels wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house.’ The blurb concludes by stating that over the summer, Clara ‘finds herself drawn deeper into the dark interior rooms – and into the secrets that violently haunt Shadowbrook.’
The novel opens with quite a vivid description of Clara’s disability, osteogenesis imperfecta. It begins: ‘My structure is not quite right. By this, I mean my bones – the part on which the rest of me is stretched, stitched into place… My skeleton is frail. I creak with any transference of weight. In my childhood, I fractured so frequently – with small gestures, with the simple act of looking up – that doctors winced and shook their heads. She is imperfect, they said.’ In consequence, her mother is ordered to keep Clara inside, sheltering her from the dangerous outside world – at least until she has stopped growing. Clara thus spends the majority of her childhood reading, largely in the library of the house, which her parents converted from their old dining room for her benefit. I felt that Fletcher’s depiction of Clara’s ailments was well-balanced, and did not feel dramatised in any way. I also liked the way in which Fletcher used Clara’s own voice to describe herself. The contrast between Clara’s past and present – in which she is able to leave the house and regain some independence – is well balanced.
Clara was drawn to Kew Gardens quite by chance following the death of her mother, something which she was entirely unprepared for, despite the illness which ensued. She is grieving and desperate, and walking is the only thing which helps to take some of the pain away. She learns, in her own way, to navigate her own city, learning to board omnibuses which take her to distant parts of London. On one such journey, she decides to alight at Kew: ‘And on a February morning, I stepped down from the bus in a place called Kew. This was a name I knew. For here, there were famous gardens, with rhododendron walks and glasshouses and pergolas. I’d read of them in books.’ Spending around a decade indoors, with only glimpses of the outdoor world from windows, she is mesmerised by the wealth of plants she is able to wander amongst at Kew, now that she is older and her bones have ‘strengthened and settled themselves’. Fletcher’s descriptions of the gardens are quite lovely; on a cold, ‘grey, desolate’ day, Clara finds an ‘extraordinary domed building of glass’ before her. She enters, and ‘left February behind. England, too, was gone. For the Palm House at Kew contained canopies and ferns and damp wooden benches; palm leaves brushed my hair as I passed… Now I wanted to be nowhere else. I was done with crowds and London’s streets. Here was a new beginning.’ This discovery, the comradely relationship which she strikes up with the keeper of the glasshouse, a man named Forbes, and the subsequent offer to travel to a new place in order to ‘establish a room of colour and scent and spectacle’, allows Clara to affirm her place in the world. In this way, and given the alterations which Clara’s character undergoes, House of Glass can certainly be called a coming of age novel.
When she finds herself in Shadowbrook, after a long journey by train, Clara is met with ‘a house of pale stone. Clematis grew on its walls. Its courtyard was bordered with dark, leafy shrubs in which I could hear movement – nesting birds, or the scurrying of mice. Two storeys to it, no more. A small right-angled wing.’ At her point of arrival, Fletcher begins to introduce elements of oddness, or of ghostly occurrences. The man who picks Clara up from the station, for instance, tells her not to worry about any noises which she might hear in the night, as old houses were prone to movement. As she roams the grounds, and spends time within the house itself, she begins to notice something unsettling: ‘I had a curious sense of being watched; throughout the garden, I felt it. It was as though I had entered a part of it – the orchard, the lime bower – at the very moment that someone else had risen and left; I felt that any metal chair might retain that person’s heat. It was an unsettling notion. I chastised myself for it – it was foolishness – yet I also looked down the lines of hedges. On the croquet lawn, I turned in a slow, complete circle to see it all.’
Later, and unable to discover a rational solution, she muses over what the feeling of being watched, and screams and scratches in the night, could be the effects of. After discussing the goings on with the members of staff at Shadowbrook, she says: ‘Ghost. The word had not been said but we’d heard it even so. It had hung above the kitchen table; it had circled us… A thin, inconsequential, fictitious word. It had no place in diagrams.’
In her other novels, two of Fletcher’s real strengths are her ability to create both atmosphere and realistic characters. My experience with her newest book was much the same. I very much admired the way in which she had not made Clara into a martyr, following the emotional and physical pain which she had to struggle with daily. Rather, Clara was realistic; she had tempers, and spoke her mind quite wonderfully, particularly in those situations where she was challenged by other characters. She felt entirely three-dimensional, holding within herself a myriad of worries and hopes, and a believable backstory. Clara felt like a progressive, modern woman; she does not go to church, or believe in God, and does not allow her voice to be silenced by anyone. She is opinionated and stubborn, and not at all a likeable character, but I found her quite fascinating.
Fletcher’s prose is rich and sensuous from the outset of House of Glass. Of Clara’s confinement, she writes: ‘Ours became a house of cushioning. Of velvet and goose down, embroidered pillows, Persian rugs and silk. There was, too, a globe. A rocking horse that I could touch but not ride. And they’d bring home what they thought I might miss from the blustery world: fir cones and pigeon feathers, the scent of horses on my mother’s red gloves which I’d inhale, eyes closed. Tales of how the river had looked at twilight. How the carol singers sang, despite the rain.’ The descriptions of the library share gorgeously vivid imagery: ‘There was a chaise long which was, at first, the colour of moss. But in time – as I read more, studied more maps – this deep, velvety green became the shade of hummingbirds’ wings or Othello’s envy or the gems which hid in equatorial soil. The green of a tiny jungle frog.’
Whilst not my favourite of Fletcher’s novels – an accolade which must go to Oystercatchers and Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – I did enjoy many elements of House of Glass. Whilst there is far less commentary on the outbreak of the First World War than I was expecting, I found that the period was very well evoked, and the novel itself was both immersive and atmospheric.
At no point, however, was I entirely captivated by the story, and despite the real strengths in character building, I felt as though the denouement of the novel was a little disappointing, and something of an anticlimax, and the ending was drawn out. The story does come together, but I did not find the twists to be overly clever or original. I also found the pace a little awkward in places, and the tension which Fletcher had striven to create was not as heightened, and therefore not as successful, as it could have been. Whilst there are many things which I admired in House of Glass, I have to say that it is probably my least favourite of Fletcher’s books to date.