Friday, 18 March 2016
THE HOUSE OF EYES by Patricia Elliott .....reviewed by Adèle Geras
Once again, full disclosure. When I review a book, I often have to confess to knowing the writer. In this case, it's even worse. I first met Patricia when she was a student on a Ty Newydd writing course which I taught jointly with the much-missed Jan Mark. Even back then, and it was a long time ago, Patricia was obviously going to be a successful writer and since then, she has gone on to produce many wonderful books, my favourites of which are MURKMERE and THE DEVIL IN THE CORNER.
In HOUSE OF EYES, the intended audience is younger. It's what the Americans call Middle Grade. Any good reader of about eight and up would love it and there are not enough books being written for this age group. Because I'm passionate about introducing younger readers to historical fiction and because I'm convinced that reading historical fiction at an early age can have nothing but good effects, I'm happy to be able to welcome Connie Carew, our intrepid heroine, who will, if the promise of the title is fulfilled, be having lots of mysterious adventures in the future. This is reassuring. If there's one thing that avid young readers like, it's the idea that the books they enjoy are part of a series of stories which isn't going to run out any time soon.
This first story is enjoyable from beginning to end. We start with a plan of the house in Alfred Place West, where Connie lives with her aunts Dorothea and Sylvie and her horrible step-uncle, Harold Thurston. Connie wants to be an archaeologist and is forever trying to visit the British Museum. Her horrible step-uncle is Up to No Good...we suspect this almost from the beginning, but it takes Connie some time to reveal the depths of his nastiness, in a climax which is most satisfying and exciting.
There's a tragedy in the background here. Ida, Dorothea's daughter, disappeared when she was very small and is assumed to be dead. Dorothea is bereft and the story begins when she visits a medium in order to get in touch with her dead daughter. Shortly after that, a young woman called Ida turns up looking for a housemaid's job at Alfred Place West....is she the real Ida, miraculously restored, or is she an imposter, after the fortune that awaits her?
There is romance here, and excitement and even though the story is for younger readers, Elliott doesn't gloss over the nastier side of Victorian exploitation of the bereaved. The whole world of mediums and charlatans is very well evoked. All the characters who interest us are brought vividly to life, especially the aunts and nasty uncle Harold with his creaky whalebone corsets.
Elliott writes so well that it's hard to pick out any passage to quote. She has a light touch and there's humour everywhere in this book. Here she describes Connie's rather sceptical reaction the séance:
"Aunt Sylvie was sitting up half the night to watch for a ghostly girl to float in through her bedroom door. But to Connie the girl had seemed very much alive, despite her strangely luminous frock." That 'despite' is a period touch of the lightest possible kind.
Connie's piano teacher, Arthur, is described thus: "He had long thin fingers and the rest of him was long and thin as well......his ankles and wrists protruded, knobbly but elegant." Arthur is visible to every reader and we love him, because of that subtly-placed "elegant" and which contrasts humorously with "knobbly." It's very high quality writing indeed and it pervades the whole book.
I hope this novel reaches the audience it deserves. It's funny, exciting, well-written and has a proper plot and structure.....not something you can depend on finding in a book, but which is immensely satisfying whenever you find it. This is a delightful book which I enjoyed enormously. Do try it!
Published by Hodder Children's Books in paperback.
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