When Serena begins a new life working for the Hartreve family at 36 Marguerite Avenue she falls in love, not just with its eccentric and alluring inhabitants and their world, but with the house itself. Number 36 is a beautiful Victorian London mansion that has remained in the family for generations. Serena feels that by being here she has escaped the ghosts of her own sad childhood and found a true home, but she soon discovers that behind its gleaming surfaces Marguerite Avenue is plagued by secrets and mystery. Why does such a beautiful tranquil street seem sometimes to shimmer with menace? Is everyone in the family quite who they appear to be? And just what is it that the family is trying to hide from her?
It is 1892. On a hot summer night scented with jasmine, Miranda Whitestone hosts a dinner party at 34 Marguerite Avenue. Watching helplessly as her husband is seduced by her glamorous neighbour Lucinda Eden, she can have no idea of the consequences the evening will have.
For the history of Marguerite Avenue is more chilling than Serena could have imagined, and the fates of two women – the beautiful renegade Lucinda and the ‘good wife’ Miranda – will reach out from the past to cast a shadow over Serena’s own future.
The Room Beyond is a thriller that delves beneath the romance and grandeur of a London house and finds a family haunted by the legacy of past wrongdoings. As the suspense grows and the fog thickens, will Serena be able to give up all that she has come to love? Will she ever escape?
I was initially attracted to this book simply by the fact that it was a dual time story – I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but did notice it already (having only been published on 29th September) had a number of five star reviews on Amazon. That was good enough for me…
In the present day, the book opens with Serena’s arrival at 36 Marguerite Avenue, on a blisteringly hot day, for an interview for a post as a nanny. I was immediately drawn in by the descriptions – the terrace like a moored luxury cruise ship, the climbing rose on an old wall, the front door as impenetrable as a castle gate, the blurred stucco moulding of Adam and Eve, the interior with its threadbare carpet and smell of baking and wood polish. I like a book that appeals to all the senses, and the languorous day is reflected in the slowness of the story’s telling.
Two stories unfold side by side. Serena takes up her post, looking after her young charge, Beth Hartreve, living in a room in the house’s attic, coming to terms with the unusual Hartreve family and their complicated relationships . At first, this modern thread seems to be a gentle and relatively straightforward love story, with the developing relationship between Serena and Sebastian – it’s not quite clear how he fits into the family, but he’s always around and becomes an important part of Serena’s life.
The other thread of the story is set in 1892, and Miranda Whitehouse is desperately trying to hold together her marriage to Tristan under the critical eye of her sister Jane. She is fascinated by the exotic Lucinda Eden, abandoned by her husband and now something of a recluse, who lives next door. Having invited Lucinda to enliven a boring dinner party, where she has the impact of an exotic bird, their lives are never the same again.
What I really wasn’t expecting of this book – and it was an absolute delight – was the darkness it developed. This is far from a gentle historic ramble – there are real shocks, evil, ugliness and a touch of the supernatural that made it a really different and fascinating read. It’s a very clever recreation of Victorian sensation writing at its very best – the best of gothic and romance brought uncomfortably into a domestic setting.
There are some vividly drawn characters. Miranda Whitestone, faced with the destruction of everything she holds dear, transforms from a meek and mild wife of her time into a rounded and strong character fighting ferociously for survival. Walter Balanchine is a fascinating enigma – first an unusual sight as he visits Lucinda in his exotic clothing, he develops into a key catalyst for development of the story. Other characters are pure evil – there are clues early on, but I really wasn’t prepared for the way this story turned. Like me, you might find yourself lulled into a false sense of security by the early part of the book: once the evil and darkness that lies beneath the surface is unleashed, it’s a real rollercoaster through to the end, with a strong element of the supernatural and edge-of-your seat excitement. The two stories are expertly intertwined, and the dramatic conclusion – with some unexpected twists and turns – is all you want it to be. This book might not have been quite what I expected it to be, but I really loved it.
The author, Stephanie Elmas, was born in Hong Kong to an English father and Czech mother but spent most of her childhood in Bristol. She studied English at university in London. She has worked as a head hunter, taught English in Japan and returned to university to complete a Masters in Victorian fiction. It was here that she developed her interest in the dark dangerous world of Victorian sensation writing. Stephanie now lives in a chaotic house in Surrey, with her husband and three highly energetic but wonderful children.
I’m thrilled to welcome the author, Stephanie Elmas, as a guest on my blog today.
Stephanie, I know this is your first novel, and it took you seven years to complete in very challenging circumstances. Where did the idea come from?
The idea came to me when I was supposed to be researching for my PhD in the British Library. I already had a baby daughter and although I should have been working I knew in my heart that I just wouldn’t be able to commit enough time to my studies. So, to cheer myself up, I pushed my books to one side and started scribbling a story about an eccentric family in London instead. I had fun with them and put them in the sort of house I could only dream of living in – although I’ve changed my mind about that one now! The idea just grew and grew and The Room Beyond was born.
And you went down the route of sending it to publishers? How was that?
I managed to get my fabulous agents hhb agency on board. We went through a couple of edits together and then down the whole publishing route. In this climate it’s harder than ever for an unknown writer like me to find a publisher and the rejections were tough to handle. I did get quite far with one major publisher who eventually turned me down at the last hurdle. They were looking for a more romance driven book and although The Room Beyond has its fair share of romance, it doesn’t quite slip neatly enough into that genre. So hhb agency are now supporting me through an agent based service with Amazon called White Glove. I’m loving every minute of it!
The street where the story unfolds is so vividly drawn – is it real?
Marguerite Avenue is not real but is very typical of a lot of streets in West London. I had a friend who lived in the World’s End part of Chelsea. Her road had a wall at the end with a beautiful climbing rose on it. I loved the fact that it was so quiet there, even though a major shopping district was just minutes away and that inspired the setting of my book. London is full of wonderful secrets like that: green quiet places and extraordinary buildings, sometimes where you least expect them.
Miranda Whitestone is such a strong character – who inspired her creation?
In life I’ve always found myself sticking up for the underdog and Miranda certainly has her work cut out for her with Tristan. With each rewrite of The Room Beyond I found myself making her stronger and stronger. She didn’t need to be rich or glamorous to be my heroine, it’s her beautiful nature that wins through.
I know you’re planning your next book around Walter Balanchine. I was so intrigued by him – where did the idea of him come from?
Balanchine seems to capture people’s imaginations. My agent actually googled him when she first read my book to see if he was a real character! He is totally fictitious but also born out of many of the changes that were troubling society during the Victorian era: the place of religion post Darwin, the impact of Empire and a growing interest in mysticism and the occult. Balanchine was never intended to be a major character but I loved writing him and to use his early life as the basis of my next novel is sheer indulgence!
I’m a big fan of dual time novels, and that’s what attracted me to yours in the first place. What have you read recently that you’ve enjoyed?
Naturally I love dual time novels too! I’m reading The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared at the moment. Set in the present but with flashbacks across a century of major world events, this is an awe-inspiring read. I love Jonasson’s sometimes toe-curling dark humour; it’s the best book I’ve read in ages.
Thank you to Stephanie for her answers to my questions, and also to netgalley for providing an e-copy for review. The Room Beyond is available for Kindle through Amazon UK (currently at the excellent price of £1.99) and from Amazon.com for non-UK readers.