This is not a genre that I normally read but I was delighted with the author's strong narrative skills and her original and very enjoyable use of the language. Throughout the entire book, two parallel stories unfold, one contemporary and the other set in circa 1892.
Serena is a lonely young artist, who was raised by her aunt following the tragic death of her parents in a road accident. She is strong and independent but also vulnerable, as she carries the scars (both emotional and physical) of her damaged childhood. She is the main protagonist and narrator of the modern-day story. When she accepts an offer of employment to act as nanny (or more precisely, responsible companion) to Beth, an unusually bright and precocious 4-year-old, in a beautiful historic house on Marguerite Avenue, in London, she enters an eccentric family who cohabit uneasily in an atmosphere dripping with underlying tensions and secrets.
The Victorian narrative features many tragic characters but the main one is Miranda, a plain woman desperately in love with her handsome husband, who has married her strictly to redeem his unsavoury past in India.
It takes a lot of skill to manage the two threads that are enriched by many common elements and interrelating events, but Stephanie Elmas capably handles the challenge, mastering her material and delivering a strong and credible recreation of Victorian sensational writing. Fans of this genre will find much to hold their interest, as this novel demands a fair amount of attention and involvement from the reader but repays all efforts with compelling twists and unexpected developments. As the novel delves in the supernatural, there are many elements that require the reader to suspend belief, and attempting to apply strict logic will only interfere with one's enjoyment of the plot.
There are many characters to follow but each one has been imbued with enough personality and uniqueness that keeping them in mind becomes effortless. The author also does a good job of rendering both modern dialogue and the more formal and stilted exchanges of the historical sections in ways that feel period appropriate and without wild and jarring exaggerations.
The stories are full of elements of the horrific, supernatural and ghoulish, interactions with ghostly entities and a glimpse into the mind control craze that gripped Victorian sensibilities, but they also touch on the present-day predicament of old families trying to preserve the architectural heritage of crumbling old mansions that are as beautiful as they are impractical. In fact, three houses along a leafy old London street and a gloriously disintegrating mansion in Wiltshire are at the heart of the narrative and almost take on a life of their own.
The pace is sedate, becoming urgent as events dictate and turning back to meditative. The recurring romantic content is handled with great skill: the action is clearly depicted without ever descending into the gratuitously graphic. There is a fair bit of tragedy and human suffering and a chance to identify and sympathize with the particular problems of each of the main protagonists. Elmas tells a compelling story of human passions, greed and folly without passing judgement and it is possible to feel compassion even for the evil-doers and the misguided, and we are left to apply our own standards. The ending is certainly not sugar-coated but satisfactorily optimistic. All in all, a suspenseful read that kept me interested throughout and surpassed my expectations.