2

‘House of Glass’ by Susan Fletcher ***

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. 9780349007649

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

The Book Trail: From ‘Oystercatchers’ to ‘Fred & Edie’

This Book Trail begins with Susan Fletcher’s fantastic Oystercatchers, and, as ever with this series, uses the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to show seven other interesting books.

1. Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher 1925785
This is the second novel from highly acclaimed young writer Susan Fletcher, author of the award-winning “Eve Green”. Amy lies in a coma. Her older sister, Moira, comes to her in the evenings, sits beside her in a green-walled hospital room. Here, Moira confesses. She admits to her childhood selfishness which deeply hurt her family and to the self-imposed exile from the dramatic Welsh coast that had dominated and captivated her childhood; to her savagery at boarding school; to the wild, bitter and destructive heart that she carried into her adult life. Moira knows this: that she’s been a poor daughter, and a deceptive wife. But it is as Amy lies half-dying that she sees the real truth: she’s been a cruel sister, and it is this cruelty that has led them both here, to this hospital bed. A novel about trust, loss and loneliness, “Oystercatchers” is a love story with a profound darkness at its core.

 

2. The Glass House by Sophie Cooke
Following her expulsion from a private boarding school Vanessa, the middle child in a family of three daughters, returns home to the Southern Highlands to attend the local comprehensive. With both of her sisters away at school and her father working abroad this should be the perfect opportunity to spend time with her glamorous, autocratic mother. But instead of the idyllic life Vanessa craves she is dragged into a nightmarish world of secrets and abuse, violence and betrayal, and watches in horror as her mother self destructs in front of her. Only Alan, a childhood friend, offers Vanessa an escape from her unhappy life but will Vanessa find the strength to confide the secrets she has buried deep within her?

 

7694463. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
Returning to Manchester, her broken home, Esther moves back to the flat she used to share with her best friend Donna. Surrounded by empty gin bottles, with her past life safely taped up in stacked cardboard boxes, she proceeds to turn her back on a ‘real world’ that seems meaningless and absurd. Instead she lives in her own head. Then she meets Newton, a care-worn American wanderer with a drinker’s face and an angel’s smile. Newton changes everything. But for how long?

 

4. All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell
When Lara was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash. A prominent plastic surgeon, and Irishman, he had honed his skills on the bomb victims of the Troubles. But the family grew up used to him being absent: he only came to London for two weekends a month to work at the Harley Street clinic, where he had met their mother years before, and they only once went on a family holiday together, to Spain, where their mother cried and their father lost his temper and left early.  Because home, for their father, wasn’t Earls Court: it was Belfast, where he led his other life …  Narrated by Lara, nearing forty and nursing her dying mother, All the Beggars Riding is the heartbreaking portrait of a woman confronting her past just as she realises that the time to get any sort of answers is running out.

 

5. The China Factory by Mary Costello 13636433
An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.  Love, loss, betrayal. Grief, guilt, longing. The act of grace or forgiveness that can suddenly transform and redeem lives. In these twelve haunting stories Mary Costello carefully examines the passions and perils of everyday life and relationships and, with startling insight, casts a light on the darkest corners of the human heart.  What emerges is a compassionate exploration of how ordinary men and women endure the trials and complexities of marriage, memory, adultery, death, and the ripples of disquiet that lie just beneath the surface. With a calm intensity and an undertow of sadness, she reveals the secret fears and yearnings of her characters, and those isolated moments when a few words or a small deed can change everything, with stark and sometimes brutal consequences.

 

6. One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden
A story about three Northern Irish sisters. It has a double narrative, part of which describes their childhood and shows the impact of the political changes and the violence of the late-1960s upon the people of Ulster, as the wholeness and coherence of early childhood gradually break down.

 

16225427. The White Family by Maggie Gee
When Alfred White, patriarch of the White family, collapses at work, his wife, May, and their three disparate children find themselves confronting issues they would rather ignore. Maggie Gee skillfully weaves a narrative that reminds us that racism not only devastates the lives of its victims, but also those of its perpetrators.

 

8. Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson
In the winter of 1922 Edith Thompson and her younger lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Percy Thompson, Edith’s boorish husband. The two lovers were executed in a whirl of publicity in 1923. The case caused a sensation, a crime of passion that gripped the nation’s imagination and became the raw material for Jill Dawson’s sensual and captivating novel Fred and Edie, a fictional account of the lovers’ romance and their subsequent trial, predominantly told through Edie’s imaginary letters addressed to her lover, “Darlint Freddie”. This is a remarkable novel, that brilliantly evokes the suburban world of 1920s London (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published the same year as the trial, runs like a leitmotif throughout the novel). Edie, viewed from the public gallery as “silly, vain” is a superb literary creation–sensual, intelligent, articulate and liberated, bitterly denouncing in her letters to Freddy a world that denies “that our love might be a real love, on a par with other great loves. That just because you are from Norwood and work as a ship’s laundry man and I grew up in Stamford Hill and read a certain kind of novel, we are not capable of true emotions, of having feelings and experiences that matter“.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Silver Dark Sea’ by Susan Fletcher ***

First published in November 2012.

The Silver Dark Sea is the newest novel from established author Susan Fletcher. It is a ‘profound tale of love, loss and the lore of the sea’, and is described as ‘tender, lyrical and redemptive’.

The opening lines of The Silver Dark Sea are rather reminiscent of fairytale-esque stories: ‘Once there was a man. He was bearded and kind. He lived on an island in a stone-walled house with a tap that dripped, and a small peat fire. He had no friends to speak of. All his family were gone’. Known locally as the Fishman of Sye, the man resides in myths and legends. This lyrical and intriguing prose manifests itself in the descriptions which Fletcher has woven throughout the book, and creates a novel which is incredibly evocative of place. We meet ‘a girl with sun-coloured hair’ and on the small island, ‘the grass was wind-bent’ and its waves were ‘crashing like glass’. Fletcher creates such wonderful and realistic imagery and often conveys the bleakest and most commonplace of scenes in fresh and interesting ways. On the island, ‘there aren’t any trees… Nor are there many houses, but there are some; they all have missing tiles, damp window frames and peeling paint’.

The main thread of the story comes when a man believed to be the Fishman of Sye is washed up on the beach in one of the island’s coves. ‘Still’ and ‘white-skinned’, he is thought, at first, to be dead. The islanders are charged with finding his identity when a bout of rather predictable amnesia ensues.

Although the island itself is given the name of Parla, our narrator, Maggie, makes it clear that ‘names do not matter, as they never truly do in the tales I know. What matters are the people themselves’. This is Fletcher’s cue to introduce a whole host of characters, the majority of whom are introduced very quickly. Their primary scenes are presented as a series of small vignettes, and it is clear that the author has such compassion for them. At first, the character descriptions and their personalities have been created in such a way that although there are lots of them, it never becomes difficult to keep track. This changes rather suddenly, however. Some of Parla’s inhabitants are clearly more developed than others, and whilst it is interesting to have such a complete cast of characters, it would have been better to focus on just a handful of them in order to erase the vast confusion which often clouds the book. The character tree at the beginning of the novel is definitely a useful addition, and one which is sure to be used a lot.

The third person omniscient perspective has been used to convey the story of the man upon the island, and from then on a mixture of third person and first person narrative voices have been used. The reader is a character at points too, as we are addressed directly by the first person narrator. Thoughts of separate characters who make up the story have been included in italics, a technique which works well for the more solitary inhabitants of the island but which is not always necessary in scenes which contain dialogue. The dialogue itself has been presented without speech marks, which can make it a little difficult to follow in places.

The novel is rich from the first page, and in its beginning, its pace is wonderful. Fletcher has created an incredibly well thought out picture of island life when beset by mystery and fables. Whilst her narrative and prose techniques are interesting, one cannot help but think that a more traditional approach would better complement the story of an island which is steeped in history, whether it is set in the present day or not. It would have been an incredibly powerful novel had a lot of the characters been removed and the story of Maggie and the Fishman were concentrated on almost entirely. The Silver Dark Sea is certainly absorbing, but elements of it stop it from becoming a wonderful novel.

Purchase from The Book Depository