Marsden Fisher. The name lies uneasy on his tongue, but he’s going to have to get used to it. Marsden is his new name while he serves as a tutor at Maidenstone Hall. There, Alice, the frail, beautiful daughter of the dour and rather … traditional Earl of Scarborough and his wife, lives in the shadowed, melancholy rooms. One wing stands destroyed, eaten away by fire and with no signs of repair. The staff are down to a pittance and the land is being sold off, bit by bit.
Marsden isn’t here to be a tutor, not really. He’s here because this is the house where Simon grew up; these are Simon’s parents and his sisters, and Marsden has hopes that this ghastly manor is where his lover is being kept, locked away in some room. Because Marsden can’t — won’t — believe that Simon is dead. Because it isn’t possible, it isn’t true. Somewhere in this house is some final trace of the man he loves, and Marsden will do whatever it takes to find him.
Marsden wasn’t prepared for the tempestuous, tumultuous, and troublesome Beatrice, Alice’s sister who stands in such stark contrast to the cautious, restrained creature that is Alice. The two sisters loathe one another; they can barely mention each other’s names, let alone stay in the same room, and both of them look to Marsden for something he has no idea how to give. But they know something. Alice with her quiet silences, Beatrice with her mocking laughter.
Flickering lights, screams in the night, secrets hidden around every corner. No one tells the truth, and everyone is in on the lie. Everyone except Marsden. He survived the Great War, he survived the loss of his family, and he survived watching Simon walk away. But can he survive Maidenstone Hall?
This book was just so much fun. I’m not going to go into the plot in detail, because the plot is the best part of this book. It weaves together gothic horror, Victorian melodrama, a ghost story, and a twisting mystery. The breadcrumbs are well laid and I was able to keep up with the author for every reveal … at least, I thought so. Clare was honest in every turn, with no false leads, and it was just so very well done. And then the ending hit. The book is open ended, which some people may not enjoy, but I for one did.
Marsden is living under an alias, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s angry, desperate, paranoid, and so wrapped in his own misery that he doesn’t have much attention to spare for Alice. Beatrice, though, doesn’t care and demands Marsden’s attention, forcing him to notice her, to react to her, to go with her. Alice is sick, seeing a doctor several times a week, while Beatrice is trying to stop her father from selling the house — not that it’s working. The two of them hate one another.
The servants are protective of Lady Alice, afraid of Beatrice, and sadly indulgent towards the Countess. They talk around things rather than answer questions, they avoid looking too closely at Marsden — except for the Earl’s Valet, who always seems there to catch Marsden when he’s trying to open locked doors. Marsden isn’t interested in being their friend, in staying any longer at this house than he has to. He just has to find Simon, some trace of him, some sign he was here.
Marsden isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, but he’s obsessed with finding the answer he wants to be true, and he’s surrounded by people who have no reason to be honest with him. Every thought and realization he has is based on the information these people are giving him, each with their own motives and ends in mind. It makes for a delightfully twisty read, and will be perfect for an October re-read, I think.
The writing is elegant, setting the mood and atmosphere with spare, artful lines. The pacing is brisk, and while the book is on the longer side, I read it in one sitting. I can’t wait to see more from this author.