I had a curious sense of being watched.
June 1914 and a young woman – Clara Waterfield – is summoned to a large stone house in Gloucestershire. Her task: to fill a greenhouse with exotic plants from Kew Gardens, to create a private paradise for the owner of Shadowbrook.
Yet, on arrival, Clara hears rumours: something is wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house. Its gardens are filled with foxgloves, hydrangea and roses; it has lily-ponds, a croquet lawn – and the marvellous new glasshouse awaits her. But the house itself feels unloved. Its rooms are shuttered, or empty. The owner is mostly absent; the housekeeper and maids seem afraid. And soon, Clara understands their fear: for something – or someone – is walking through the house at night.
In the height of summer, she finds herself drawn deeper into Shadowbrook’s dark interior – and into the secrets that violently haunt this house. Nothing – not even the men who claim they wish to help her – is quite what it seems.
House of Glass is narrated by Clara, a young woman who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Her case is severe, and she has suffered multiple fractures and breaks during her short life, and even the most basic of activities is dangerous to her. Because of this, she is extremely well-read, having had plenty of time to pursue indoor activities as outdoor ones are less available to her. She is extremely intelligent, and yet completely naïve when it comes to human interaction, having had very little opportunity to get to know anyone outside of her own family, the word “cripple” following her wherever she goes. I think that Clara, at around twenty years old, is beyond the age of most “coming of age” novels, and yet I loved the development of her character as she leaves home to help fill the glasshouse of Shadowbrook. In leaving her comfort zone, she has the opportunity to experience people and different walks of life to those that she is used to. She comes across as difficult at first – she is often described as stubborn and demanding – and yet does begin to make friends as she learns more about people, emotions, and human interaction.
Clara is an atheist, quite against the status quo for the time at which the novel is set, and believes firmly in science, evidence, and proof. When confronted with the haunting at Shadowbrook, she is adamant that there is a rational explanation for the spooky goings-on, even as she herself hears the footsteps in the middle of the night, the tapping at her door, and learns of the experiences of the housekeeper and maids. Eventually unable to dismiss the idea of a haunting, Clara begins to see things in a different light, finding some comfort in the idea of the soul and the afterlife, having recently lost her mother. I thought that this element of the novel was deftly handled, and I wasn’t sure which way the story was going to go – it does keep you guessing until much later in the novel.
With the initial hints of a haunting, Clara begins to investigate the house and its former inhabitants, the Pettigrews, discovering early on that few have anything good to say about the family. I thought that the history of Shadowbrook and its former inhabitants was very cleverly done, with many who live around Shadowbrook knowing of rumours and having plenty of gossip to share with Clara. House of Glass is a novel that highlights the dangers of gossip and how rumours can, overtime, become “fact”, and I felt that this was a timely message in today’s world of fake news.
Set against the outbreak of the First World War, House of Glass is a wonderfully Gothic tale that doesn’t reveal its secrets until the very end. The story went in a different direction to that which I was expecting, and I thought that the ending worked brilliantly – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
House of Glass was published by Virago in November 2018.