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.

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola – layers of atmosphere, stories and fear

This is a book with so many layers. A historical novel full of the atmosphere and truth of another age, yet offering a subtle commentary on the treatment of girls, of women. A mystery novel, but with far more than the solving of a death. The tale of a young woman in search of a better way than marriage or keeping silent about wrongdoing. A story of a group of people losing everything they value. The front of the book states “First the land was taken. Then the stories. Then the girls”. This is a novel of fear, of layers of confusion. A painful book, but a tribute to the human spirit, even when that is expressed in unconventional ways. This is a book of landscape, of a powerful understanding of life on the edge, of communities of fear. The power of the writing should be self evident; this book boarders on Gothic horror which has effectively terrified so many over generations. I was taken aback by much of this book, and I am grateful to be given the opportunity to read a copy for review on a blog tour.

The book opens as Audrey, a young woman, is sailing to the Isle of Skye. It is September 1857, and already the weather and the birds, are signalling the coming of winter. Audrey is running away, moving from her father’s home in London and the life of a relatively well off young woman, already tired of her stepmother’s attempts to marry her to a suitable man. As Audrey helps an obviously unwell girl, it begins to emerge that she cares deeply for such poor girls, quietly indignant at their treatment and the treatment they receive at the hands of more powerful men. She is going to seek employment and independence, having followed an advertisement for a folklorist, someone to assist in the collecting and ordering of tales of the people, the folk tales that have emerged and developed over generations. To some on the island these are nothing more than complex superstitions, growing as a result of the unique weather and natural life of the islands. As Audrey encounters the mysterious Miss Buchanan and the mysterious house to which she is confined, she realises that she must explore the island, meet its people on a level in which they feel confident to talk with her, and deal with those who want to rationalise the use of the land. She is shown and told of the suffering which the effective clearances are causing; displaced and desperate, they either scratch for survival or are exiled to countries from which they will never return. The chance discovery of a body means that the stakes are raised to an unbearable level, as the stories are not just to be collected, but feared, as the weather, birds and land all seems to wrench at ancient and more recent secrets.

It is difficult to capture the successful way in which Mazzola creates the sense of a world, both threatening and disappearing as Audrey strives to understand what is happening around her. The offstage threat of London, her own earliest memories, and the almost supernatural fear which pervades this book makes it a truly compelling read. An absorbing tale, I found this a gripping story which was subtly brutal, yet never needlessly violent. This is a book which works on so many levels, and I thoroughly recommend it as a fascinating novel.

So another blog post about a book which I believe turns paperback soon – it is certainly worth finding! Meanwhile I have a mini break from blog tours while I catch up with more books that are begging to be reviewed. I have been acquiring some lovely books in an independent bookshop today – hurray!