Lisa Heathfield is a new author to me and I picked up this ARC, via NetGalley, (happily) based very much on the blurb:- set in 1950’s England, Clara (just turned fourteen) and her much younger brother, Stevie, (about seven, I would guess) are deposited by their father, at their aunt’s rambling old country house to stay, after their mother’s horrific accident, which has left her in hospital.
Auntie has no children of her own (but, see the wonderful cover above, she does have dolls! And I do love dolls in fiction and what they represent). At first Auntie welcomes the children, playing surrogate mum to them, cooking meals and washing for them. Stevie, in particular, has a huge need for a mother. He also wants to play with the train set in the basement and all the other toys.
Auntie has very strict rules and a husband, Uncle Warren, who is away working, but when home the children hear him shouting and realise he doesn’t want them in his house. But why not? Auntie’s rules become harder for the children to follow, Auntie becomes more unstable or does she? Or is it the children’s behaviour provoking her into becoming more controlling? Both Clara and Stevie are changing in this new environment and the garden yields some disturbing surprises.
I adore Gothic-style novels, with small casts, claustrophobic settings, internal/external ghosts, the possibility of lurking insanity, escalating emotions and a unexcavated darkness at the heart.
Consequently, I found myself gripped and swept along and soon buried nose-deep in ‘Such Pretty Things’. I instantly bonded with Clara, with whom I came to identify and empathise. Perhaps she’s my dream older sister?
She’s brave, loyal, feisty, strong, missing her mum, yet still trying to ‘mother’ her little brother, in this new family set-up which is all the children have left. But there can only be one ‘mother’ in the house it becomes clear as the weeks drag by.
The narrative flips throughout the novel over into revealing Auntie’s internal thoughts, which are fascinating and increasingly disturbing.
The house and the dolls become extras in the unrolling drama, and loom large over it. The garden and marshy land beyond (the backdrop for a riveting episode which places the children in grave physical danger), the characters’ subtle interplay, their daily life and Auntie’s inner life, are beautifully written, with lush, vivid language.
This is a world with no internet, no TV, no smart phones, rather one where children play with toys, make up games and entertain themselves, where meals are eaten at the table in freshly-changed clothes (hand-sewn by Auntie – a flag? Or just a lovely gift?), where domestic rituals dominate, and where visitors from outside do not intrude. If they ever do – well, read and find out. It is therefore a very isolated world, cut off and hermetic. Setting it in the 1950’s was a good move.
Gradually we discover more of Auntie’s history, her life and her mindset. She has always wanted a family of her own, but they must play by her rules, and when they don’t – Clara goes into battle both to save herself and her brother, but can you ever escape the ties of family? Both living and dead?
This is not a straightforward ghost/supernatural/haunted house novel, but more a tale of grief, loss, sadness, instability, loss of control and a fight to survive, but there are horror aspects interwoven in the narrative – so a hybrid, I’d say a ‘lit-fic-horror-novel’.
The ending is very powerful, and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I found it wonderfully written and very touching. I nearly cried anyway.
There are quite a few reveals in the last section of the book, maybe too many too close together? There’s a lot here to process and the reader will have to re-jig their understanding of what’s been happening, as like Clara, we’ve been kept in the dark. This reader had her suspicions but I didn’t work it all out. There was one shocking reveal near the end which stopped me in my tracks.
Author Lisa Heathfield kindly provided this quote concerning the inspiration behind her début adult novel:-
“The house, with Auntie and the children arrived in my mind fully-formed one day. I let it stay there for a few months as I finished another book and then I began to write. I never plot, so I never know which way the book will go. I write long-hand and was genuinely surprised by what was coming out of my ink pen, especially Auntie’s voice, which was so strong. I knew almost immediately that it wasn’t a young adult book. In fact, after I’d finished the first draft, I tried to rewrite it as a Y.A., but it was stubborn and wouldn’t yield. I’m not sure I have a favourite character. I know that Auntie is unstable, but I have huge sympathy for her. And I’m quite fascinated by Stephen, by his need for a mother, by the internal working of his mind.”