Ghosts tingle spines in chiller

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Har­riet Zaid­man

DO ghosts ex­ist, and if they do, can you kill them? It’s a cen­turies-old ques­tion that re­li­gions, mys­tics and mys­tery writ­ers have tried to an­swer, never suc­cess­fully.

Ir­ish nov­el­ist John Boyne of­fers his take on how to deal with the un­dead in a spine-tin­gling ode to the clas­sic Vic­to­rian-era chiller, just in time for Hal­loween.

El­iza Caine, a school­teacher in 1867 Lon­don, has her life turned up­side down when her fa­ther dies sud­denly. Bereft of other fam­ily and in grief, El­iza makes the im­pul­sive de­ci­sion to leave Lon­don, re­spond­ing to a strangely-worded ad­ver­tise­ment for a gov­erness in ru­ral Nor­folk.

But El­iza is the sixth nanny in only a year at the eerie house, Gaudlin Hall. The chil­dren she is hired to ed­u­cate are odd, older than their years. They’re keep­ing a se­cret, as is ev­ery­one else in the house and the small town nearby, a se­cret they won’t share.

Even stranger, the chil­dren’s par­ents seem to ex­ert a con­tin­ual in­flu­ence over them, yet they are nowhere to be found. When un­seen forces nearly kill El­iza, she sets out to un­ravel the mys­tery.

El­iza’s shel­tered up­bring­ing leaves her un­pre­pared for the chal­lenges she faces. She sees the chil­dren are dam­aged and need to be res­cued from the evil be­dev­il­ing them.

But she is buf­feted by the un­bri­dled sex­ism that was a trade­mark of Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety, where a woman’s in­tel­li­gence was ig­nored or mocked by sup­pos­edly en­light­ened, sci­en­tific men.

The hypocrisy of the in­sti­tu­tional church, which can’t tol­er­ate the pos­si­bil­ity of any in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the world it hasn’t in­vented, angers her and steels her de­ter­mi­na­tion to carry on.

Best known for his books ex­plor­ing ma­jor his­tor­i­cal events — among his eight nov­els are Mutiny on the Bounty, The Ab­so­lutist and The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas — Boyne recre­ates the Gothic novel bril­liantly.

In The House Is Haunted he echoes the voice of such 19th-cen­tury clas­sics as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

Boyle is a mas­ter chameleon, tak­ing on a Dick­en­sian voice (Charles Dick­ens also makes an ap­pear­ance) to give the story authen­tic­ity.

Maids lit­er­ally dis­ap­pear around cor­ners, chunks of stone fall in­ex­pli­ca­bly from the eaves, an in­vis­i­ble force chokes El­iza nearly to death.

The de­crepit house, with its dark cor­ri­dors, hid­den pas­sages and sealed win­dows, is as much a neme­sis to El­iza as the in­vis­i­ble spirit.

While El­iza strug­gles to guard her san­ity and save her life, she also has en­dear­ing mo­ments with the chil­dren and ex­pe­ri­ences the glim­mer of hope she might find love in this rus­tic back­wa­ter.

Boyne im­i­tates an an­tique style, but this is a very con­tem­po­rary, rel­e­vant tale. His char­ac­ters re­veal un­set­tling, real-life is­sues that haunt the tor­tured souls, alive and dead. Har­riet Zaid­man is a teacher-li­brar­ian in Winnipeg.

This House Is Haunted

By John Boyne Dou­bleday Canada,

297 pages, $25

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