OK, I’ll admit it up front – having (like most people) discovered John Boyne’s writing through The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, I’ve eagerly devoured everything he’s written before and since. My personal favourite to date was The Absolutist, just about as different from this one as it could possibly be, which featured in my Top Ten of 2012. So I was absolutely thrilled when Alison Barrow at Transworld Books was kind enough to send me an ARC of his new book, to be published in the UK by Doubleday in April 2013.
The opening sentence had me hooked – “I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father”. So begins the strange story of Eliza Caine, driven by the death of her father to apply for the post of governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk, answering an advertisement placed by the mysterious H Bennet. Arriving at Gaudlin after a frightening experience at Thorpe station, Eliza finds that the two children in her care, Isabella and Eustace, appear to live alone but are clearly expecting her. On her first night, she has an unexplained and unsettling experience, the first of many that slowly make it clear that the house is haunted and that she is not wanted at Gaudlin. The more she finds out – from the solicitor Raisin, the elusive Mrs Livermore, the Reverend Deacons, the former governess and the Toxleys – she realises that she cannot abandon the children and will need to fight the evil forces to protect the children, possibly to the death.
The absolute joy of this book for me was the character of Eliza Caine. Unattractive by her own admission, she sees the possibility of love with every man she encounters – however unlikely and unsuitable – and she portrays a wonderful naivety and unreliability as a narrator, taking all the supernatural twists and turns in her stride. Then there are the supporting characters, all drawn in Dickensian detail, interpreted through Eliza’s eyes. The story is unsettling and disturbing, but wonderfully lightly told, and I loved every page. And as for the ending… it’s just perfect. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Victorian gothic, a strong heroine or just a rattling good story. I really loved it.