Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London.
But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners—including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.
Published 27th July 2017 by Picador Books
I was really looking forward to this book – it looks and sounds like a creepy ghost story, exactly what I was hoping for when I picked it up. And it started off really well. After just a few pages I was convinced I was going to love this book – enticed by the mysterious house and engaging writing style.
It begins with Richard and Eleanor viewing a spooky, dated and badly in need of renovation, old Victorian house. Eleanor isn’t keen – there’s an eeriness about the house that makes her uncomfortable. Richard on the other hand, partly swayed by the surprisingly low price tag and the idea of a project convinces her and they move in with there young daughters. But old houses don’t come cheap and to boost their income, they take in a lodger Zoe, who rents the basement part of the house. As three adults settle into their new home, it becomes clear something isn’t quite right. Why is Eleanor so violently ill when in the house but ok when she leaves? What’s causing Zoe to sleepwalk and giving her nightmares? And who exactly is the little girl, Emily, whose name appears scrawled all over the house?
So I was pulled into this book pretty quickly. The setting is tense, the atmosphere eerie and foreboding and the writing is of the style that absorbs the reader causing pages to speed by without even noticing. I was all curled up, shivering with anticipation and ready to be spooked by a deliciously sinister ghost – only it never quite happened. I felt this book didn’t quite get to where it was going, or perhaps where I was expecting it to be going.
However, that’s not to say I didn’t like it, because actually, when I got past the fact it wasn’t the bump in the night ghost story I was expecting, I could actually appreciate how subtly sinister this book actually is. There’s a lot of heavy, oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere to The Upstairs Room, and not all of it is supernatural. The three adults of the house are all flawed, somewhat unlikeable and clearly unsatisfied with their lives. I think there’s some subliminal message about the emotional effects of adult unhappiness on children, and wondered if the ‘monster’ was actually the adults own despair at themselves. The meaning or story behind the ‘ghost’ is never fully resolved and very open to interpretation – which some readers might dislike. However I quite like a book that leaves me sitting thinking afterwards, and The Upstairs Room certainly did.
It did dip a bit in the middle, and I became a little bit frustrated as the book flits back and forwards to Richard, Eleanor and Zoe’s past – it just didn’t interest me as much as the present story and what was happening in the house. But then the pace picked up again, things began to unravel and I enjoyed the final chapters very much. I have mixed feelings about this one – on the one hand I was disappointed that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations in the chills and thrills department, and thought it lost it’s way a bit in the middle. However, I loved the author’s use of atmosphere and subtle eeriness and thought her writing was very easy to read. I also liked the ambiguity of the ghost and enjoyed pondering my own theories regarding its meaning. Overall, a good book and definitely an author I’ll watch out for in future.
(I read an advance e-copy courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley)