Title: This House is Haunted
Author: John Boyne
Publish Date: April 25, 2013
Copy Origin: ARC from Netgalley
Summary from Goodreads: 1867. Eliza Caine arrives in Norfolk to take up her position as governess at Gaudlin Hall on a dark and chilling night. As she makes her way across the station platform, a pair of invisible hands push her from behind into the path of an approaching train. She is only saved by the vigilance of a passing doctor.
When she finally arrives, shaken, at the hall she is greeted by the two children in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There are no parents, no adults at all, and no one to represent her mysterious employer. The children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, a second terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.
From the moment she rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence which lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realises that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past.
I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father.
The first sentence and that certainly draws you in immediately. At least until you learn that by this Eliza means that her father still had not recovered completely from a cold but still insisted on going to see Charles Dickens doing a reading from his latest work. His condition worsens thanks to the bad weather on the evening and he dies. Of course that is a perfectly valid explanation but it still feels like a letdown, first hooking me with such a cool first sentence and then giving such a boring explanation just a few pages later.
It’s not the only letdown in the book. Eliza isn’t a very likeable character who seems to be blessed with the memory of a goldfish. She hears a name and when she sees that name a second time only a short time later she wonders why it sounds so familiar, she goes to somebody with the intend of getting certain information and then lets herself get sidetracked by small-talk. Together with her somewhat inconsistent characterization (she jumps from shy and reserved to super-confident and giving a feminist rant to the local vicar and back again) it’s hard to really care for her.
The story itself is…good-ish. On the one hand Boyne uses incredibly cheap tricks to keep the reader engaged. Chapters end either on an ominous sentence along the lines of ‘If only I’d known what was about to happen’, on big revelations or on cliffhangers (and if it’s one of the latter the next chapter won’t start immediately with the resolution but talk about something else for a few pages). On the other hands…it worked. I eye-rolled a lot but still read the whole book in just two settings because I did want to know how it all continued. The tricks may be cheap but Boyne is a good enough writer to make them work.
However eventually the book fails quite badly in a very important aspect. Eliza slowly learns the reasons behind the haunting and realizes that she has no idea how to stop them. She also knows that all but one of her predecessors as governess have been killed in horrible ways. Still she decides to stay because she can’t leave Eustace, one of the two children she is caring for, alone (even though she knows the spirit won’t harm the children). Eliza just cares so much for him and she will tell that everybody who asks. It’s good that she does that because it’s certainly not shown. Eustace and his sister Isabella stay colourless (in fact I just had to look up their names and I only finished this book a few hours ago) and we barely see Eliza interact with them so it’s hard to believe that she would stay just for him. As a result her actions seem more stupid than admirable.
If the relationship between Eliza and the children had been given more depth (and Boyne had perhaps realized that it’s not necessary to end basically every chapter on a cliffhanger to keep the readers interested) this could have been a really good book.
As it is, it’s a nice way to spend a lazy weekend but nothing that will stay with you for long.