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The Quilty Reader

Lawyer, mother, avid reader. Game host extraordinaire! Partner in crime to Obsidian Black Plague! My bookish weaknesses include classics, fantasy, YA, and agreeing to read more books than is even remotely possible.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This House is Haunted - John Boyne

[H]indsight is a wonderful thing, but I look back now and I think of that moment, I think of Alex and Madge Toxley standing there on the platform at Thorpe Station and I want to scream at them, I want to run and shake them, I want to look them squarely in their faces and say, you knew, you knew even then. Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you speak? Why didn’t you warn me?


Thank you Booklikes friends, for picking this book out of my poll! 


This House is Haunted combines several things that I love - Victorian sensibilities, a dash of Dickens nostalgia, lovely gothic drama, strong, interesting lead female character, and ghosts.


I really enjoyed this book a lot. The book begins with our protagonist, Eliza Caine - plain, well-educated for her era, definitely on the shelf - living with her father and teaching for a school for girls. Although her father has been ill, when he learns that Charles Dickens will be doing a reading, he insists on going.


The foreshadowing begins here, because Dickens chooses not to read a passage from his most recent book, but rather reads a ghost story to be published in his magazine Household Words. Like many of the Victorians, Dickens had an affinity for a good gothic ghost tale. This prospect is so alarming that one of the women in the audience literally runs screaming from the hall.


In the immediate aftermath of the reading, Eliza's father succumbs to his illness and dies. She is left without resources, without a home, and without any real way to make her own way in the world. She takes a position as a governess to two children - 12 year old Isabella and 8 year old Eustace - at Gauldin Hall, and is soon convinced that there are malevolent presences at work, seeking to kill her.


Eliza goes seeking answers, and finds few. The townspeople react with open shock when they learn who she is, the lawyer who is responsible for the finances of Gauldin Hall is playing hide-and-seek with her, and the local priest refuses to acknowledge that the forces at work at Gauldin Hall are anything other than perfectly normal.


I liked Eliza. She is anachronistic, it is true. There are points in the book when she allows her irritation with her oppressed state to get the better of her, when she displays some obviously modern thinking that is at odds with her actual status as a woman of the nineteenth century. There is a scene in which she challenges the priest, saying:


“The Bible is written by men,” I declared. “It has gone through so many changes, so many linguistic translations over the centuries that it adapts and re-creates itself in the form of the time in which the reader engages with it. Only a fool believes that the words of the Bible are the words delivered by Christ.”


“Miss Caine, you are approaching blasphemy,” he said, sitting back in the pew now and looking scandalized. I could see his hand trembling slightly as he spoke. I suspected that he was unaccustomed to being challenged so provocatively by anyone, let alone by a woman. His position, like so many of his ilk, was one of uncontested and unearned respect. “And if you continue to speak in this vein, I will not listen.”


“I apologize,” I said, not wishing to infuriate him or bring the roof of the church down on my head; there was enough possibility of that at Gaudlin Hall without it happening here too. “I don’t mean to upset you. Truly I don’t. But you must admit that there is so much that we don’t know about the universe that it is entirely possible, indeed it is likely, it is more than likely, that there are mysteries whose revelation would surprise us. Shock us, even. Cause us to doubt the very foundations upon which we base our faith in this world.”


I mentally cheer, all the while acknowledging that this is a conversation that is very unlikely to have occurred.


I felt like the first 80% of the book was great, but that it did collapse into a melodramatic heap (like, literally) towards the end. The plot twist was predictable, and the ending was hackneyed. This barely impacts my enjoyment of the book - the Gothic ghost story IS predictable, and maybe that is what Mr. Boyne was aiming for. I was hoping for a more ambiguous answer, similar to Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger. I didn't get it here - the "truth" is much simpler.


“I wake up at Gaudlin Hall, I spend most of my day there, I sleep there at night. And throughout it all there is but one thought running through my mind.” “And that is?” “This house is haunted.”