House of Shadows | Pamela Hartshorne | 2015, Pb 2016 | Macmillan | 466p | Review copy | Buy the book
Kate Vasavour, badly injured from a great fall, has been in a coma for several days. When she finally awakes in her hospital bed, Kate has no idea who she is. She can’t even remember her own young son. She has tantalising shadowy memories of people and voices but when she reaches out for them they disappear. Her doctors comfort her, Kate is traumatised, her memories will return. But when the memories do start to emerge in a more tangible form, Kate realises that they don’t belong to her. She is remembering the life of another person, a woman desperate to find her child. Kate feels driven to help her search, Kate’s pain made worse by her growing awareness that she has forgotten her feelings for her own child.
At the beginning of House of Shadows, we are as ignorant as Kate is of her life and background. But when Kate’s rather formidable in-laws take her back to her late husband’s home – the impressive, Tudor-built Askerby Hall – the nature of Kate’s memories begin to emerge. Kate is remembering a previous occupant, Isabel Vasavour, who lived and died at the Hall over four hundred years before. Something terrible happened to Isabel and it is up to Kate to put it right, even if it puts her relationship with her son in jeopardy and risks her sanity and her very life.
Some years ago I had a great fondness for timeslip novels, such as those by Barbara Erskine, and, although it’s been a while since I read one, there was something about the mood of House of Shadows that instantly pulled me in and reminded me of the pleasure I had reading such novels as Erskine’s Lady of Hay all those years ago. Pamela Hartshorne does a wonderful job of evoking the past and present of Askerby Hall, a suitably creepy and yet beautiful old house that creaks with history, not all of it bad by any means, and is scented with atmosphere. We move between the Elizabethan and modern periods smoothly, almost naturally, and both feel as real to us as they do to Kate. That is until Kate grows closer to the truth and then the novel takes on a different feel entirely – we then dip into melodrama and horror – but the book retains its almost gentle atmospheric appeal throughout.
Kate is a very sympathetic character surrounded by a host of oddballs. Even though she cannot remember her own son, Kate and the boy do work to recover a relationship almost as if they feel united in their isolation within this enormous house. I really enjoyed this element of the novel. It’s also hard not to care for Isabel of the past, especially as we know it cannot end well. The mood of mystery hangs over House of Shadows and works well with the movement between past and present.
There is much that is predictable about the mystery and plot of House of Shadows but that almost doesn’t matter. This feels like a comfortable, old-fashioned read. This also helps to justify some of the more stereotypical characters as well as the familiar house itself. House of Shadows certainly fit my mood when I read it. Despite work and everything else going on that day, I read House of Shadows in just one day. It was a truly delightful and compelling read that enchanted me from its very beginning and I could not put it down unfinished.