House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

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House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A superbly plotted and exquisitely-written story of life on the eve of WWI
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: November 2018
Publisher: Virago
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0349007649

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Clara suffered from Osteogenesis imperfecta: these days it would probably be called brittle bone disease and whilst there is still no cure, treatments have advanced. At the beginning of the twentieth century it meant that Clara was confined to her home, living life through a window and the tales her mother, Charlotte, brought home. Both became far too knowledgeable about bones and the sounds they made on breaking. Charlotte would list bones like continents. Clara would only escape the house after her mother's death - of a tumour at the age of thirty nine - and in her wanderings discovered Kew Gardens. Her growing knowledge of tropical plants led to the offer of a job stocking a newly-built glass house at Shadowbrook in Gloucestershire.

But Shadowbrook was not all that it seemed. It had lain empty for many years and only recently been taken over by Mr Fox. Since moving in he'd had a splendid glass house built in the grounds and this was to be Clara's territory. He'd made some improvements to the inside of the property, although neglect was still evident everywhere that Clara looked. Fox had a suite of rooms on the first floor and no one was allowed to enter unless specifically invited. His visits to Shadbrook were few and far between and always unannounced: the property was lived in by a housekeeper, two maids, Clara - and a ghost.

Clara is logical: she doesn't believe in ghosts, or souls. Where was the proof that either existed? But she hears the steps on the floor above her in the early hours of the morning when there's no one who could have made the noise. Flowers lose their petals overnight. Pictures are thrown from the walls. A door is damaged. Finally the housekeeper is pushed and breaks her arm in the fall. Something has to be done, but Mr Fox doesn't even rise from his bed to see what is happening.

There are adjectives other than 'logical' applied to Clara. 'Forthright' is the kind way of saying that she sometimes doesn't know when to stop asking questions. 'Petulant' and 'determined' she can cope with, but 'cripple' is the one used by people who see no further than her cane and the twisting gait. You'll warm to her because there's a complete lack of self-pity. Whilst she carries the story she doesn't dominate it and every character you meet will be real and three dimensional to you. It's a few days since I finished reading and I still wonder about what happened after the end of the story, how life has moved on for the characters. I was totally invested in the characters: they were as real to me as my neighbours.

Susan Fletcher captures the period well too: Charlotte dies in the first hours of 1914 and we see the world change from one which is almost unaware of war to one where women would work the land because all the man and the horses have gone. We see Clara change too - with maturity she loses some of her old certainties and becomes more open. The character development is superb.

It's also a masterclass in plotting: the structure is perfect. I've put my proof copy aside so that I can read it again, simply for the pleasure of seeing how it was done. Add in writing which is exquisite and faultlessly descriptive and you'll see why I'm hoping that the book will be appearing on award lists before too long. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

We've been impressed by Susan Fletcher before; Corrag won five stars and whilst it's set in a completely different time and place it would be a wonderful follow up to House of Glass. You might also enjoy Hot House Flower by Margot Berwin.

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