Psychic tale turns on sinking of Titanic
Helen Allston is the kind of mother who drives wedges between her children without even trying. She certainly dents the relationship between her two daughters when she determines that the eldest, Sibyl, is over the hill (though she’s barely into her 20s), and it’s time to focus her matchmaking energy on the youngest, Eulah.
This being the early 20th century in upper-crust Boston, and Helen being a social climber, her matchmaking plans include a trip to Europe (for culture and couture) and travel home aboard the Titanic (where Eulah will happily mingle with the sons of wealthy, influential world travellers, one of whom will surely become Helen’s son-in-law).
When the great ship goes down on April 15, 1912, Helen and Eulah are among the many who wind up at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
But three years later, when much of Katherine Howe’s latest page-turner takes place, the spirit of the late Mrs. Allston returns to mess with what’s left of her family.
Helen’s timing makes sense: spinster Sibyl and widower Lan are still paralyzed by grief, while son Harlan, who was an impressionable teen when his mom and sister went to their watery graves, is about to throw away his life: he’s wasting his last semester at Harvard by cavorting with an adorable but unsuitable young actress from California.
Puzzling out the truth about Helen’s “appearance” provides The House of Velvet and Glass with plenty of forward motion.
It’s not immediately clear whether her spirit is real, a figment of Sibyl’s griefand-guilt-stricken imagination, or a cheap trick by the neighbourhood medium.
If the psychic angle doesn’t grab you, fear not: Howe has plenty of other narrative devices to hold your attention. Opium, suffrage, First World War and household servants whose antics call to mind the backstairs drama of the hit PBS series Downton Abbey play key roles in this followup to Howe’s 2009 bestselling debut, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
She revisits some of what are clearly her pet subjects: Massachusetts, magic, romance, and that age-old biblical theme of the sins of the father being visited upon the children.
In Deliverance Dane, the sins were visited over multiple generations, as Howe alternated between 17th-century Salem and late-20th-century Boston. The chronological spread isn’t nearly as great this time around, but Howe has added more time periods, moving from the Titanic’s last night to Shanghai in the 1860s (when Lan was a young sailor) to Boston between 1915 and 1917.
Howe has no trouble juggling the different storylines, which are compelling in large part because her characters are so vivid. Sibyl may have struck her mother as too dull and hopeless to get married, but her greatest failing, if it can be called such, is that she’s more introspective than the emotional, dramatic, and ultimately exhausting Eulah.
In that way, Sibyl is more like her father, a shipping magnate who has as many secret facets to his personality as his eldest daughter has to hers. The way Howe reveals their hidden natures heightens the tension in a story that has no shortage of twists.
Howe was a PhD student in American and New England studies at Boston University when she wrote her first novel.
She’s since earned her degree, but her biography doesn’t say whether she has a teaching position. If she doesn’t, academia’s loss is popular fiction’s gain. Howe’s attention to period detail is impressive, all the more so for the way she works it so naturally into her prose.
Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a. In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust. In its complete version, Proust’s opus weighs in at more than 3,000 pages. Even if you were to bring an abridged edition, or Lydia Davis’ 2004 translation of just the first volume, Swann’s Way, the book is mammoth and, quite frankly, not much happens. There is a good chance even an enthusiastic reader may nod off during its meditations, risking a blistering sunburn.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Where bummers are concerned, it isn’t all the Irish angst and rainy skies in this 1996 memoir that make this book seem awkward for the beach — it’s the biography of the author, who died in 2009 after a diagnosis of melanoma.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. You’re probably better off not reading a novel about an inappropriate relationship with a young woman on a beach full of, among others, young women.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Spoiler alert: This may be the saddest book you’ll read. If someone commissioned a study, they would probably find that 99.999 per cent of all people who read Charlotte’s Web will finish it in tears. To avoid sobbing on the beach, leave this classic at home.
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic was marked in Halifax, where 121 victims are buried.
The House of Velvet and Glass