Virago | 2018 (1 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is June 1914 and Clara Waterfield, a young botanist of independent means, is summoned to the large house of Shadowbrook in the Cotswolds. The house had been owned by the Pettigrews, a family feared and loathed among the local community, but with the last of the line having died, the decaying house is now owned by Mr Fox. Clara’s task is to fill a glasshouse with exotic plants from Kew Gardens. It shall be a haven for Mr Fox. But the strange thing is that Mr Fox refuses to be seen. The housekeeper explains that he is usually away on business but, when he is around, he keeps to his rooms on the first floor and he is not to be disturbed. His house is left unloved.
But Mr Fox isn’t the only unusual presence at Shadowbrook. Clara hears footsteps at night; flowers brought into the house are dead within hours; paintings on the walls fall to the ground. The housekeeper and maids have no doubt what is causing the disturbance – Shadowbrooks is haunted. Clara is determined to find out what is going on in the house, what it is that worries the villagers. As the country heads towards a war that will change everything, Clara becomes immersed in this Gothic house of secrets.
I love a creepy Gothic tale, especially one that is focused upon a large decaying and unloved country house. There are so many closed doors, creaky floors and dark, forbidden passageways, rumours of ghosts – we have all of that and more in House of Glass. By contrast, the world outside Shadowbrook is enjoying a fine summer, although the fact that it is 1914 casts a shadow over even the sunniest days. There is a sense that for many, there will be no more summers. The setting is enticing. The fact that it’s set in the beautiful Cotswolds, which is my own part of the world, made me enjoy it even more.
Clara is a fascinating and unusual heroine. She has what we would know as brittle bone disease. Just a touch can cause an agonising break. Her body is distorted by old and recent breaks, and vividly coloured with bruises. After years spent indoors as her poor bones grew and developed, she is now free to venture outside and this is the world that captivates her. She must always be careful but she is happiest when her fingers are immersed in soil, caring for plants. There is something very no-nonsense about Clara Waterfield. She wears her hair down and unpinned, she speaks bluntly, she has turned her back on religion, and she is a strong supporter of the movement to win female suffrage. Clara stands on the edge of a new world for women. She is ready to enter it.
There are other characters in House of Glass that I really enjoyed, especially Hollis the gardener and Kit the neighbouring landowner, but the novel’s heart belongs to Clara Waterfield. The story is told in Clara’s own words and Susan Fletcher brings her to life beautifully.
House of Glass is gorgeously written as Clara endeavours to make sense of this strange, potentially very frightening world around her. I especially enjoyed the first half of the novel during which time is spent evoking the world of Shadowbrook and its surroundings. There is such a mood of foreboding and menace, offset by the beauty of the weather and the garden. Dark and light contrast so well. I’m not so sure that I fell entirely for the way in which the plot developed in the latter stages of the book but my overriding impression of House of Glass is how beautifully its world and characters are portrayed. I loved the sense that a new modern world is on the horizon, on the other side of the horror that will be the Great War. There is a strong feeling of uncertainty and unhappiness due to the war but for Clara and women like her new possibilities and freedoms beckon while old attitudes to women, especially concerning female morality and their role in the workplace, may be about to start changing.