Review published on December 20, 2017.
Eleanor and Richard and their two young children move into a dilapidated Victorian terraced house in the London Fields area. The couple are full of plans and hopes for their ‘forever house’. From the start it is obvious the previous owners left suddenly and no-one seems to know why, but for a while everything seems to be going well.
Except, the walls of one of the third floor attic rooms are covered with strange graffiti – faces, birds and the name Emily scrawled over and over. Then Eleanor starts to feel nauseous with blinding headaches. Three-year-old Rosie’s behaviour becomes aggressive and wild. The tenant wakes in the night feeling paralysed with terror. Patterns of pebbles begin to appear on the doorstep.
I was impressed with this unsettling modern take on a ghost story. The house may be old but the characters are firmly twenty-first century, dealing with familiar problems of overstretched budgets, work-life balance, parenting and relationships. The first third of the book is very gripping – a real page-turner, as the tension mounts and the scary effects on the family escalate.
Then the author starts to take chapters out to give us the backstory of the characters. This is convincingly done but for me it had the effect of slackening the tension. In parts the novel becomes as much about the challenges of life in today’s London, the madness of the housing market and the difficulties of commitment as it is about the house. Perhaps a semi-autobiographical millennial novel with supernatural overtones but still a very impressive debut.
Reading groups might enjoy discussing the family/social aspects as well as the implied question, ‘was it the house or the people in it?’
Gwenda Major 4/4
The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne
Picador 9781509837588 hbk Jul 2017