Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show - not in the walls of the house but between Richard and Eleanor....
As they attempt to settle into their new home, Eleanor becomes ill and convinces herself it is the house that is making her suffer so violently with progressively crippling headaches and sickness.
But Richard is dismissive, wrapped up in budgets, building plans and the 27 year old female lodger renting their basement rooms.
Determined to prove to Richard that the house has a dark past, Eleanor investigates the previous owners and tries to find out just who Emily was and why her name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room. ......
Yes, this is one creeptastic read. If you are faint hearted, susceptible to tension headaches and easily frightened when you have to go upstairs to bed at night, then beware of this book! And if you have just moved house....double beware!!!
But whatever your disposition, I still recommend you read it! There are so many ideas and themes in this novel that although it is dominated by the eerie atmosphere of the house, it is also a novel that examines marriage, parenting, mental health and relationships. There is an intriguing cast of characters - not always likeable and most definitely fallible - and all with issues to confront, decisions to make and behaviour to consider. But before I talk about the actual characters, I want to talk about the real central character in this novel - the house.
I love gothic novels and I love novels about houses. Nothing captures my imagination more than a hidden room, a mysterious piece of furniture left behind by a previous owner or the ghostly presence of something haunting in the hallways. The Upstairs Room has all of this. It also has echoes of The Woman in Black, The Others, The Birds and The Omen. I think it is fair to say that perhaps the premise of the novel is not completely original but what is impressive is the creation of main character Eleanor, and then a plot that uses such compelling language and so well executed that it feels fresh and new. And I must say that if this book becomes a film (yes it should and I'm sure it will!!) like some of the other titles I just mentioned, I don't think I would be able to watch it simply because the novel was so unsettling and so frightening I don't think my nerves could stand it!
This house, with it's strange, unnervingly preserved upstairs room, is so well evoked that it is quite claustrophobic and intense at times. The suggestion of malevolence in the building is overwhelmingly well handled and well crafted. The writing on the wall is especially terrifying:
"......the scrawls were like vermin: Eleanor became alert, vigilant, every smug leaping out at her. When she saw the familiar faded pencil, it made her jump, even though she had been looking for it. Soon, they were swarming at her and she couldn't understand how she hadn't seen them before."
I loved Eleanor's "compulsion to leave the house" as if the home were a real live thing with a real live intention to harm - which it certainly appears to be. The description of Eleanor's dizziness, sickness and sluggishness is evoked so intensely that I myself shared her feelings nausea and also felt like I needed to run outside and get some fresh air. It is hard to maintain prolonged tension with one character and one location and to write so repetitively about illness but in this book, Browne achieves this; she maintains the intensity, stress, oppressiveness and accumulating sense of threat and dread.
Eleanor is a very well crafted character. She is thoughtful, sensitive, intuitive and despite a tendency to over analyse, the reader is on board and also convinced she is not wrong to have these fears and anxieties. I felt her frustration as she was repetitively judged and her illness dismissed as tiredness or an inability to cope with the demands of parenting. The repetition of the phrase "You just need to rest" becomes grating and starts to symbolise more about the crumbing relationship between Richard and Eleanor than a well meaning platitude.
An equally fascinating character is Zoe, the young lodger. Her observations and insight about the couple's life and family provides a bit of objectivity. She has a very different world view, she has her own complicated secrets and own issues with relationships to work through. It's an interesting dynamic to introduce into the novel and the pressure that Eleanor and Richard are under is further exacerbated by the physical presence of Zoe who is part of their house yet not part of their house. Zoe's reaction to the strange happenings also helps to compound the tension and show the reader that what is going on is not an invention of Eleanor's tired and confused mind.
Initially I did find the final section of the novel a little overlong but it wasn't until the last few paragraphs that I realised that it was in fact necessary and valid. There is a certain satisfaction in having all the strands pulled together and although at first I thought everything was too neatly sown up or too much exposition, I was rewarded with a delicious hint of ambiguity at the end which meant I ended the book with a little gasp and wry smile. Good work!
This is a good read. There are complex characters to grapple with and back stories which not only give you a break from the intensity of the scenes inside the house but also add depth and further layers to the book. This books is a great example of well written description and how to present passages describing inner turmoil and inexplicable illness. Recommend!
The Upstairs Room is published on July 27th by Picador.
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BIBLIOMANIAC'S BOOK CLUB: BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS
How did you respond to the author's presentation of the work of the spiritualist?
Which character did you feel most empathy for and why?
Which character did you feel least empathy for and why?
Do you think things would have been different for Eleanor, Richard and Zoe had they lived somewhere else and not bought this victorian house in London?
Can you give a rational explanation for what is going on in the house? What is your explanation of what happened?
Can the lives of previous owners live on in a house long after they have moved out?
How did you respond to the ending? Was it satisfying? How else could the novel have ended?
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