In a decaying English country cottage, the past bleeds hauntingly into the present after a fragile young woman’s arrival activates echoes of grief and loss.
Subtle and suggestive, Baker’s (The Mermaid’s Child, 2014, etc.) version of gothic delivers its ghostliness in the incidental details: ripples in the atmosphere, voices, scents, movements at the corner of an eye. The setting is an underpopulated village where Rachel, a young mother, has gone to clear out her parents’ retirement home, called Reading Room Cottage. Losing her mother to cancer, at the same time she was having her own first child, has left Rachel unstable and her relationship with her partner, Mark, intermittently strained. Now alone for a couple of weeks, having left Mark and the baby behind, she finds herself sucked into an increasingly disturbing vortex of moods linked to the dwelling and its old bookcase. In alternating chapters another voice is heard—that of housemaid Lizzy, who shared the overcrowded cottage with her family and a politically minded lodger, Mr. Moore, in the mid-19th century. Through her interactions with Moore, Lizzy glimpses a different kind of existence—a world of books, intimacy, and possibility—beyond her constricted, work-dominated life. This 2008 novel by Baker, now being published for the first time in the U.S., combines several of her trademark themes: the lives of women, the past, and—particularly reminiscent of her bestselling Longbourn (2013)—the endlessly exhausting labor of the working class. Best of all, it showcases her gift for observation and fresh angle of approach. Though undoubtedly a ghost story, and at times a spooky read, the book offers acceptance and heartfelt compassion in its twin female portraits.
A delicate, atmospheric ghost story with satisfying layers of insight and substance.