The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood – an atmospheric story of a young woman taking risks in a Victorian world

The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood

An incredibly atmospheric novel for a debut work, this book uses all the techniques of using the senses to describe a nearly there presence. Set mainly in a vaguely Victorian town house, where the damp and mold suggest disease and creeping decay, this is a book of the unexplainable, the opposite of the fairy tales the protagonist so loves. Eleanor was not always an overworked house maid, knowing what her master Mr. Pembroke is capable of where young women are concerned.  Her memories of his late wife are associated with better treatment, and she remembers especially the reading and writing she was encouraged to spend times doing, before her hands became work roughened. The library is her refuge, her way of escaping the claustrophobic household, where she feels vulnerable on so many levels. The amazing offer that she is made of seven wishes seem set to transform her life, but at a cost she cannot understand. Everything is seen through Eleanor’s eyes, even if she does not narrate the novel, but there seems to be more going on under the surface of this multidimensional novel. I found it a curious and compelling read, with its quicksilver sightings of a woman, a fear inducing step outside the room, the hints of blood in unexpected places. Mysterious and disturbing in a good way, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this remarkable book.

When the book begins it describes how Eleanor creeps around a house at night that she used to have the run of, particularly to enter the library and read of places that she was once destined to visit with Mrs. Pembroke. As she returns to her room she has vivid dreams, but wakes to dampness all around, a chipped jug, and worst of all, her friend Leah, victim of Mr. Pembroke’s attacks, struggling into a corset in an attempt to conceal her pregnancy. As each maid in the house leaves under similar circumstances, she knows that it will soon be her turn for unwanted attention, or that he will turn his gaze to innocent Aoife. Feeling hopeless at her state, the chance to make wishes to free herself from the situation seems so tempting, if only it could be true. The cost is difficult to understand, and maybe if she is careful, thinks through what she actually wants and needs, she will be fine. Not that she will get much time, as events overtake her, as people move on with their lives, and Granborough House declines.

This is a book remarkable for its success in maintaining the sense of menace throughout, of subtly reminding the reader of the underlying threat to Eleanor, of the very real presence of other possibilities. The writing is exceptional, as it proceeds apace through the rooms of a house heavy with despair, as the small hints of clothing, physical objects, sore hands and so much more while addressing the overall themes. The library is a place of refuge, yet is also the scene of inner turmoil. Eleanor is an amazing character, strong yet vulnerable, pitted against forces she struggles to understand. I found this an engaging book on so many levels, and recommend it as an intense read of a young woman’s dilemmas.