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"Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you speak? Why didn't you warn me?",
This review is from: This House is Haunted (Hardcover)
(3.5 stars) In this Dickensian melodrama, set outside of Norfolk, England, in 1867, twenty-one-year-old Eliza Caine decides to leave the family home in London to accept the position of governess for a family she does not know in a city she has never seen. Just the previous week, her father had ignored her pleas that he remain at home to nurse a bad cold and had, instead, attended a reading by Charles Dickens on a miserable, rainy night. He succumbed to fever shortly afterward. Eliza then learns that the family home is not, in fact, owned by the family, and that she will have to vacate it. Seeing an advertisement in the newspaper for a governess, signed by "H. Bennet," which reminds her of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice, she immediately leaves her current teaching job at a girls' school and moves to Norfolk.
From the beginning of the novel, Irish author John Boyne draws parallels between Dickens' work and his own. The Dickens reading, which Eliza and her father attend, is of a ghost story Dickens wrote for a mazazine, "a most terrifying tale...of the paranormal, of the undead, of those pitiful creatures who wander the afterlife in search of eternal reconciliation," according to Dickens. Eliza, vulnerable to suggestion, has recently seen another face just below her own in her mirror, a face resembling that of her deceased mother and which she sees again as she walks to hear Dickens.
Boyne's story about the inhabitants of Gaudlin Hall, the estate to which Eliza is traveling, directly parallels much of what Charles Dickens has included in the story he has read to his audience, and many clichés of spooky Victorian novels are repeated here. Eliza arrives by train during a dense fog. Upon arrival in Norfolk, she collides with the "H.Bennet" who advertised for the governess position that she has accepted and who is now racing to catch the train back to London. She also learns that there is no Master of the house. Two children, Isabella Westerley, a twelve-year-old with a "mistress-of-the-house expression on her face," and Eustace, her innocent eight-year-old brother, are the children she will teach, and except for a mean-spirited gardener; a Mrs. Livermore who arrives every day, presumably with food, and who then vanishes; and Mr. Raison, the Westerley family lawyer (whose secretary is named Mr. Cratchett), Eliza is the only other adult at Gaudlin Hall. She soon discovers, however, that there are "presences" at Gaudlin which are trying to kill her, just as they also did with her five predecessors during the past year.
Boyne's goal here is pure entertainment, and he matches his prose style to that of Dickens effectively, though in one case, after a question, one finds the forced archaism, "Answer came there none." All the clichés of Victorian plot appear here, and the dramatic and inexplicable actions by "presences" create an atmosphere of doom which will keep a smile on the face of readers familiar with the novels of the period. The characters are vehicles for the plot, rather than compelling personalities in their own right, and the lack of realism throughout is exactly what one expects of a Victorian ghost story. Only a dark twist in the conclusion takes this novel into more modern times, stylistically.