I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to, even though it was slow to get going. It’s being marketed as either a “sinister ghost story” or else as a Gothic horror novel, but it isn’t really either. There are no ghosts. There’s a lot of talk about demons, but it’s largely in connection with religion: there are a lot of references to a fictional 15th century book which, although it’s given another name, is clearly “The Book of Margery Kempe”. We’ve got an Edwardian home in the Suffolk Fens, in which the master of the house is convinced, not that he’s possessed, but that demons are after him; and it all dates back to something he did in childhood, which led to the death of someone close to him. The protagonist is his daughter, and we see how she and their servants get caught up in it all. I don’t think it’s as good as the critics are making out, but I did enjoy it. And I got it for free, on an Amazon Prime Kindle deal!
Our heroine is Maud, and the book’s told partly from her point of view, and partly from her father’s diaries, which he appears to leave lying around – although part of the plot is that he thinks women are too stupid to understand anything, so he wouldn’t have been bothered about Maud reading them anyway. There are also two brothers, but they don’t feature much. The mother suffers a series of miscarriages and stillbirths. The father ignores doctors’ advice to give her a break from repeated pregnancies and when, during a difficult labour, he’s told that it’s a choice between her life and the baby’s life, he chooses the baby – because he’s got it into his head that the baby will go to hell if stillborn. The poor baby dies almost immediately afterwards.
They rarely leave the house, except to buy books: the father is obsessed with the Margery Kempe book. Maud develops a crush on the gardener, and her father has an affair with the maid – which he keeps going on about in his diary. Maud realises that there’s a mystery in her father’s past, and eventually finds out, from a man who lives in the Fens, that he was responsible for his sister drowning: a childhood game went wrong, and he left her to drown because getting help would have meant admitting his involvement. Then an old medieval painting of demons is uncovered in the parish church, and he gets obsessed with it. A man called Jacobs is also interested in the painting, and the dad makes some anti-Semitic remarks about him, but we never actually get to meet Jacobs, or find out why he’s into this particular subject. There are a few other minor characters – a rector, a doctor, a nurse, other servants – but they don’t feature much.
The dad becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that demons are all around him, and various superstitions and rituals come into play: he does things to the house which are supposed to ward off demons, and threatens to drain the fen near the house.
There’s quite a lot in this book about superstition. How superstitious are we all? I used to take a lump of coal and a miniature Good Luck Care Bear into exams with me. My grandad used to take a lump of coal to football matches with him! I toss salt over my left shoulder, talk to single magpies, avoid walking under ladders … I don’t know why I do all this, but I do. I have even been known to sit in a very uncomfortable position for ages during tennis matches, having convinced myself that it’ll be bad luck if I move. And I will not sit at a table if there are 13 people … not that there’s much chance of that happening at the moment!
The dad eventually murders two people. The book actually starts with Maud, years later, talking about selling the story – which has somehow attracted so much interest that there’s even talk of a Hollywood movie – in order to fund the upkeep of the house. Someone points out that handing the house over to the National Trust would be a much better idea. She ends up doing both. Maud feels guilty that she couldn’t stop him, and we get the impression that to some extent she’s always been ridden with guilt as well. One of the brothers is killed in the Second World War, and the other dies young of cancer.
So it’s certainly not a happy book! But it’s not a “scary” book either, and it does say some interesting things about how religion and superstition and guilt get mixed together in people’s heads, and how dangerous the consequences of that can be. It’s not my usual sort of book but, for free, it was worth a read.