In my attempt to read John Boyne’s entire work for adults I’m continually impressed by the variety of people, places, times, and voices he uses.
- 2000: The Thief of Time – a story, from 1758: the adventures of a man who forgets to die
- 2001: The Congress of Rough Riders – about William Cody, the son of Buffalo Bill.
- 2004: Crippen – 1910, London, the body of a singer is discovered
- 2006: Next of Kin – 1936, a cunning son tries to overturn his father’s will
- 2008: Mutiny on the Bounty – the classic story told by the cabin boy, Jacob Turnstile
- 2009: The House of Special Purpose – early 20 century, the Russian Tsar and revolution
- 2011: The Absolutist – Tristan Sadler and his shocking secret of WWI
- 2014: A History of Loneliness – an Irish priest confronts faith, friendship, and conscience
- 2017: The Heart’s Invisible Furies – the life and times of Cyril Avery, Boyne’s masterpiece
- 2018: A Ladder To The Sky – a would-be but uninspired writer finds other ways to be one
- 2020: A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom – one family, the 1st century to the near future
- 2021: The Echo Chamber – a comic novel of social media – to be released 5th August
This House is Haunted (2013), as the jacket tells us, and the title implies, is a ghost story. By being so upfront about what the book is, Boyne undermines any reticence a potential reader, like me, might have about ‘believing’ such a story. I don’t usually read ghost stories and wouldn’t necessarily have chosen this one except for the author. But knowing what it is, there is no need for Boyne to ‘convince’ you to go along with it; even as you open page one you are already going along with it.
Boyne tells the straight-forward story in the past tense, in a first person narrative, as a young, determined, but plain woman, Eliza Caine in 1867. It’s not often that a writer writes in the gender not their own; Peter Carey, Jill Dawson, Ann Patchett have tried it, most don’t. Writing in the third person about a protagonist of another gender is very different to writing as the protagonist of another gender. Eliza faces an uncertain future after the death of her father and therefore unhesitatingly takes a governess position to the Westerly children of Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. Her arrival is, of course, on a dark and stormy night and the house is large, shadowy, and turreted. The back story and her attempts to meet the seemingly elusive parents, to understand the deaths of three out of her four predecessors, and her growing relationship with enigmatic Isobella, quiet Eustace, and the other tight-lipped staff constitute the narrative; unexplainable incidents abound until Eliza is forced to admit, mainly to her practical self, that she is confronted, not by one spirit, but two. Who are they, and why are they still there?
Like Peter Cary in My Life as a Fake, and Ann Patchett in The Dutch House both avoid any writerly pitfalls – writing in another gender – when it comes to matters of sex and romance by either making their protagonists uninterested in all that stuff (Carey) or not mentioning it at all (Patchett); Boyne also avoids such pitfalls by making his heroine especially plain and seemingly resigned to her probable spinsterhood. Good and sensible choices by all three, I suspect.
The climax is, as expected, dramatic and almost filmic in its ghostly effects and although the ending is relatively happy – no spoilers here – it has a sting in its tail.
This is a holiday-read, never demanding, always intriguing and for those of you who are familiar with this genre, I expect, completely satisfying.
You can buy the book in various formats here.