Susanna Kearsley (author of such wonderful books as The Winter Sea and The Shadowy Horses) recommended this book on Twitter so I decided to look it up. After begging asking Lea, she kindly approached the publisher for a review copy of the audio and voila!
The story is a historical/horror/romance set in early 1920s England. Our narrator, Sarah Piper, is working for a temporary agency and is given an assignment to provide assistant services to Mr. Alistair Gellis. Alistair is beautiful (I imagined him as a bit Jude Law-ish) and wealthy and full of sparkling enthusiasm. It seems everyone who comes into contact with him falls at least a little in love. He is a writer and ghost hunter – writing non-fiction books about his experiences in investigating the paranormal. His usual assistant, Mr. Matthew Ryder (dark, gruff and scarred), is away and the manifestation he wishes to investigate requires a woman in any event. Against her better judgement (mainly because she needs the money, but also because she has a little crush), Sarah accepts and they travel together to the small town of Waringstoke and Falmouth House, where Maddy Clare haunts the barn.
Maddy Clare was a foundling, apparently a servant, who turned up on the Clares’ doorstep one night some 8 years earlier, bruised, battered, and unable to speak. The obviously traumatized girl could not give any information about what had happened to her or who she was, apart from (eventually) her first name. Mr. and Mrs. Clare took her in, gave her their surname, and did their best to help her. But after 7 years, something happened and Maddy committed suicide in the barn. She is an uneasy ghost, hates and fears men (as she did in life), and Mrs. Clare wants her exorcised.
Set against the backdrop of post WWI England, there is more than one kind of haunting in the book. Maddy is both haunting and haunted. Sarah is haunted by her own family ghosts. Alistair and Matthew, both returned servicemen, suffer from battle fatigue (as it was then known) in one form or another and they both have physical scars as well – in Matthew’s case, quite significant ones. Some of the other secondary characters are also haunted. It is a strong theme in the novel and particularly in relation to the effects of WWI; it was very evocative and well done.
Possibly because the recommendation came via Susanna Kearsley, I was expecting the heat level of this one to be very tame – with the bedroom door firmly closed. But that was not the case at all. It is not steamy but there is sex and some of it was surprising. I shall say no more!
The narration, by new-to-me narrator Pamela Garelick, was…okay. There are times when I’m listening to an audiobook where I will be struck by the manner in which the narrator delivers a line; where I will think to myself “I would never have thought to say it that way, but that’s exactly right.” I noticed it the first time in Davina Porter’s magnificent rendering of Outlander. In this book, there was a bit of the opposite. I found myself, quite a few times actually, thinking, “oh, that’s not how it should be said, that tone is wrong, the emotion is somehow, just a little…off.” It was by no means the whole book, but I stumbled over it enough times that it made a difference to me.
For the most part, the female characters were very well voiced. Mrs. Macready (the Clares’ housekeeper), Mrs. Clare, Maddy, and even Sarah herself, were all distinctly characterized and identifiable and fitting. The age of the women and even their class level was obvious. The other main female character was Mrs. Barry, the wife of a wealthy local man. And, she was certainly distinct and identifiable. Her voice was described in the text as low. But the way she was depicted, she had a deeper voice than any of the male characters and she didn’t sound beautiful, sophisticated and sexy at all to me (as she was supposed to) – she kind of sounded like a bad female impersonator.
Alistair’s voice was okay, not terribly deep but it was Matthew’s voice, which disappointed me the most. He (in case you didn’t guess by the fact that he is dark, gruff and scarred) is in fact our romantic hero (that’s not a spoiler – it’s quite obvious from the blurb). He is described as being working class, so I expected him to have a less-posh-than-Alistair accent. But he sounded dumb and plodding. He didn’t sound heroic. (In fact, it was not dissimilar to the way Lisa Kleypas’ Nick Gentry sounded in Worth Any Price – that didn’t work for me either but YMMV). Me? I had a sad.
That said, the other male characters were pretty well done. I just wish Matthew’s voice had been more to my taste.
In a story like this, the atmosphere is important and I felt there were missed opportunities to ramp that up for the audio. There were no effects used, for example, for Maddy’s voice. She could have sounded so much spookier.
The production was clean and the narration was certainly competent enough, but it didn’t add to the book in the way I was hoping. In fact, I think I’d have enjoyed the story (and been more spooked) if I’d read the print version. The story is very good. While the villain is not at all hard to pick, the prose was spare and atmospheric and the setting interesting and different.
Book Content: B+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in (but on the tame side)
Violence: Escalated Fighting (Ghosts! And off page rape)
Genre: General Fiction
Publisher: Blackstone Audio