HQ | 2019 (31 October) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1917 and Stella Marcham is stricken by grief for the loss of her fiancé Gerald, killed in the trenches of France during the Great War, a war which shows no signs of ending. There are still many young men whose lives the war waits to claim. Stella’s family find Stella’s grief hard to deal with and, as the months pass, suspect a mental weakness. They find a solution. Stella’s sister Madeleine is pregnant. Her husband has moved her away from London to the safety of the countryside and his manor house, Greyswick, and the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell, while he continues his war work in the capital. She needs a companion. Both sisters are delighted to see each other and draw comfort from the other. But Stella is worried by how she finds her sister. Madeleine seems unsettled, unhappy, even frightened, and when Stella finds a little toy soldier tucked inside her bed she begins to understand that something is not right with this house. And then the nights are disturbed by the sound of a child crying. A child that cannot possibly exist.
I love a good ghost story and I am drawn to tales of haunted houses and there is something extra chilling and sad about those which are set during the First World War, a time when many wives and mothers were drawn to learn about the spirit world due to the untimely, violent loss of their men and boys. The Lost Ones is beautifully written, with its gorgeous prose as haunted by a lost world as the house is. The descriptions of Greyswick and its grounds are evocative and powerful and the novel has such a strong sense of time, place and mood.
The heart of the novel, though, lies with its cast of characters, in particular Stella and her maid Annie Burrows. Annie’s relationship with Stella is a fascinating one. They’re from different classes and experiences but the two of them are drawn together by what they witness in the house. Annie’s past, as the daughter of a man who died trying to save Stella’s sister in a fire, casts a shadow over the relationship and the novel. Annie is hard to know. We’re presented this world from upstairs, in Stella’s words, in comfort. But Annie’s voice breaks through and it adds a real edge to the novel. Then there are the women who live in the house – Lady Brightwell, her companion and the housekeeper. Each is a scene stealer. Possibly the only character who doesn’t linger in the mind is Madeleine. It’s as if the house has stolen her true self away and she must leave to save herself.
The ghost story is such a good one. It’s poignant and sad and at times pleasingly frightening. There is also another side to things – the treatment of women in the early 20th century, the issue of mental health and grief, male domination of society and the home, and the role of women as both victim and oppressor. Stella had experienced an independent life in France as a nurse. She now has no independence at all. But The Lost Ones is also a novel about love. The moments when Stella remembers the precious, short time she shared with Gerald are upsetting but there comes a time when they start to give her comfort. This is something she has to work through. Just as the house itself must endure darkness before it can re-emerge.
The Lost Ones is an excellent and extremely atmospheric haunted house story set at a time stricken by loss due to the First World War. In this atmosphere of loss, grief, worry and traumatic memories, ghosts thrive. But what is it they’re trying to say? I loved the characters and I really enjoyed exploring the house. I did guess the outcome and there was some predictability but nevertheless this novel is beautifully written and evocative of time and place, just what you need for these long dark evenings.
And what a gorgeous hardback!