House of Glass by Susan Fletcher
Published by Virago, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
House of Glass is at once an enthralling gothic mystery, and a poignant piece of historical fiction that examines the devastating ways in which women’s lives were ruled by scandal, rumour, and reputation. In this respect, and many others, it is a book of opposites; of truth versus lies, logic versus faith, and reality versus the supernatural.
The story follows Clara, a young woman who spent her childhood confined to the safety of home. Suffering from a rare brittle bone condition, she is at constant threat of injury. Grieving the loss of her feminist mother, however, she jumps at the chance to finally fly the nest. Passionate about botany, she receives an invitation to establish a new glasshouse at Shadowbrook, a remote country manor. When she arrives, she is greeted by an owner conspicuous by absence, and residents terrified of a supposed haunting. Clara soon sets her practical mind to solving the mysteries of Shadowbrook.
Clara herself is a fabulous heroine. Her sheltered childhood spent in solitude, during which time she relied on the company of books, has instilled in her a voracious thirst for knowledge about people, and the world around her. This, coupled with her lack of social training, and her stubborn resilience against those who would dismiss her based on gender or disability, makes her forthright, headstrong, and proactive. If some gothic heroines flounder in the face of uncertainty, Clara moves straight for the truth, asking all the questions on the tip of the reader’s tongue.
The first half of the novel is pretty much everything I look for in an ideal read. It has a rich, vivid setting, complete with all the gothic hallmarks. The dark, brooding air of mystery swells, as do the number of delightfully ghostly and atmospheric moments. The cast of supporting characters are well established, and equally intriguing in their own ways. The looming threat of WWI in the background helps to reflect the mounting tension, and to firmly establish the story’s historical context. Fletcher’s writing itself is evocative and transporting, without ever feeling convoluted.
In the second half, the dynamic shifts somewhat, but I was no less compelled. As Clara makes discoveries about Shadowbrook’s past, and the past of those who once called it home, Fletcher begins to weave together a wonderfully intricate tapestry of secrets and lies, with everything gradually falling into place in a satisfying though devastating way. At large, this is a book about lives ruled and destroyed by the toxicity of hearsay, and the manipulative power that men held over women.
For the last 50 pages or so, there is a further shift in tone and focus that I can imagine will put it at odds with the rest of the story for some people. However, this section was still beautiful in its own way, helping to capture a very specific moment in time, when society was in a state of flux. If the coming of war interrupts the flow and significance of prior events in the novel, this is hugely reflective of the effect war has in real life, throwing a new perspective on everything. With WWI proving the catalyst for much change, particularly the role and reputation of women, it also brings an opportunity for Shadowbrook’s legacy to be rewritten, thus making complete narrative sense. Plus, by this point, I was so invested in the characters and the setting that I was just glad to be spending a little more time with them.
After all, there’s a lot to be said for picking up the right book at the right time, and the joy of a great reading experience. House of Glass was exactly what I needed right now. It completely swept me up, and I loved every moment I spent in the grips of its pages.
You can pick up a copy of House of Glass for yourself by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!