I often wonder if there will come a day when I’ll put down one of Louise Douglas’ wonderful books without thinking “that’s the best book she’s ever written” – but today most certainly isn’t that day. It’s an absolute delight today to be helping launch the blog tour for The Room in the Attic, and to share my publication day review: published by Boldwood Books, it’s now available as an e-book (free via Kindle Unlimited), in paperback and as an audiobook. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the invitation and support, and to publishers Boldwood for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
I’ve done this many times before, but I won’t apologise for doing it again – there might still be some readers who’ve never discovered Louise Douglas’ wonderful writing and think she just might be a “new author”. I’ve loved her books since way back in 2009, when I discovered The Love of my Life – it was long-listed for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and entirely deserved its nomination. Her second, the heart-breaking Missing You, won the RNA Readers’ Choice Award: her third, The Secrets Between Us, a highly accomplished thriller and love story strongly reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, was a 2012 Richard and Judy Summer Read. Then came In Her Shadow, followed by Your Beautiful Lies (you’ll find my review here): and next was The Secret By The Lake, at the time my favourite of them all.
Then all went very quiet, and I feared she might have disappeared for ever – so I was overjoyed when she reappeared as a Boldwood author. The House by the Sea was published in February 2020 – one of my books of the year, beautifully written, an enthralling story, haunting in its every detail. And then came The Scarlet Dress, in February 2021 – a dual timeline story both stunning and compelling, and I began to worry that I might run out of superlatives. But it’s ok, I do still have a few left – and I have the feeling I might just be needing them…
A child who does not know her name…
In 1903 fishermen find a wrecked boat containing a woman, who has been badly beaten, and a young girl. An ambulance is sent for, and the two survivors are taken to All Hallows, the imposing asylum, hidden deep on Dartmoor. The woman remains in a coma, but the little girl, Harriet, awakens and is taken to an attic room, far away from the noise of the asylum, and is put in the care of Nurse Emma Everdeen.
Two motherless boys banished to boarding school…
In 1993, All Hallows is now a boarding school. Following his mother’s death and his father’s hasty remarriage, Lewis Tyler is banished to Dartmoor, stripped of his fashionable clothes, shorn of his long hair, and left feeling more alone than ever. There he meets Isak, another lost soul, and whilst refurbishment of the dormitories is taking place, the boys are marooned up in the attic, in an old wing of the school.
Cries and calls from the past that can no longer be ignored…
All Hallows is a building full of memories, whispers, cries from the past. As Lewis and Isak learn more about the fate of Harriet, and Nurse Emma’s desperate fight to keep the little girl safe, it soon becomes clear there are ghosts who are still restless.
Are they ghosts the boys hear at night in the room above, are they the unquiet souls from the asylum still caught between the walls? And can Lewis and Isak bring peace to All Hallows before the past breaks them first…
It’s no way to start a review, but I’ll admit there was actually a point when I wondered if this book was going to go down a path that I might not enjoy – I’m a complete wuss about things that go bump in the night, and although there’s often a particularly gothic feel to the author’s books, I’ve never come across one before that I feared might just give me nightmares.
The opening scenes entirely hooked me in, as Lewis paid a work-related visit to the ruins of All Hallows in the wilds of Dartmoor – at first an asylum, then a boys’ boarding school he attended in his youth, we feel some of the strong echoes of the past and his abject fear at being near the building once more. But should you share my slight aversion to the ghostly and supernatural, I can put your mind at rest – while you might just prefer to read this one in daylight, the book is never more than mildly disturbing and the enthralling story that unfolded ensured that I remained firmly pinned to my chair until I’d read the final page.
After that opening chapter the book follows a dual time line, the relatively short chapters alternating between 1903 and 1993. In the earlier timeframe, All Hallows is an asylum – I guess many will have come across similar settings before, where individuals sometimes find themselves within the walls because their behaviour doesn’t meet the expected norms of society and their families, and where they were often treated with appalling cruelty. But the book’s focus is on a comatose woman and a small child, their identities unknown, brought there to recover – the child, Harriet, is placed in the care of elderly nurse Emma Everdeen, in a locked room separated from the rest of the asylum, while they wait to see if the woman will regain consciousness.
In 1993 it’s a boarding school, something of a relic from the past where corporal punishment is still the norm and where life is distinctly uncomfortable for those who fail to conform – and life is initially very difficult for young Lewis, still overwhelmed with sadness following the death of his mother, but who forms an uneasy but welcome friendship with his room-mate Isak. In the nights, the boys hear noises from the empty rooms in the corridor above – and the stories steadily converge as they begin to unravel the mystery of what happened to Emma and Harriet, and why their spirits might be restless.
That’s my wholly inadequate attempt to set the scene… and perhaps I shouldn’t have even tried, because it doesn’t come anywhere near conveying quite how wonderful the story is. The main characters are superbly drawn – Emma blossoming as her growing love for young Harriet allows her to overcome her sadness over the loss of her own child, determined not to let her down, while Lewis moves on from his own sadness and awkwardness as the boys begin to unravel the mysteries of the past. But it’s certainly not just the two main characters, the supporting cast in both past and present are quite magnificent, quite wonderfully developed – and then there’s All Hallows itself, exceptionally well drawn and a brooding presence throughout both story lines, a character in its own right.
The timelines are exceptionally clever – particularly when they blur a little as the story progresses. And all those Gothic elements – this book draws on so many of the great classics of the genre (you’ll often experience that frisson of familiarity too), but at the same time succeeds in being entirely original. I have absolutely no idea how she does it, but the book itself really feels like a great gothic classic – it does comes as a surprise at times to be reminded that Lewis’ story is set in the 1990s. And after the steady unfolding of both stories, both totally compelling, the explosive ending had me on the edge of my seat, entirely invested in the characters, feverishly turning the pages and hardly breathing – quite wonderful writing.
As I read, I felt that the whole story was one that the author thoroughly enjoyed telling, allowing her imagination to soar – and that feeling becomes entirely infectious. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough – I hardly need to say that it will, without question, be one of my books of the year.
Praise for Louise Douglas
‘A brilliantly written, gripping, clever, compelling story, that I struggled to put down. The vivid descriptions, the evocative plot and the intrigue that Louise created, which had me constantly asking questions, made it a highly enjoyable, absolute treasure of a read.’ Kim Nash on The Scarlet Dress
‘A tender, heart-breaking, page-turning read’ Rachel Hore on The House by the Sea
‘The perfect combination of page-turning thriller and deeply emotional family story. Superb.’ Nicola Cornick on The House by the Sea
‘Kept me guessing until the last few pages and the explosive ending took my breath away.’ C.L. Taylor, author of The Accident on Your Beautiful Lies
‘Beautifully written, chillingly atmospheric and utterly compelling, The Secret by the Lake is Louise Douglas at her brilliant best’ Tammy Cohen, author of The Broken
About the author
Louise Douglas is the bestselling and brilliantly reviewed author of novels including The Love of my Life and Missing You – a RNA award winner. The Secrets Between Us was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. She lives in the West Country. Louise’s first book for Boldwood, The House by the Sea was published in March 2020.