#BookReview The Marsh House by Zoë Somerville @HoZ_Books

The Marsh HouseAbout the Book

December, 1962. Desperate to salvage something from a disastrous year, Malorie rents a remote house on the Norfolk coast for Christmas. But once there, the strained silence between her and her daughter, Franny, feels louder than ever. Digging for decorations in the attic, she comes across the notebooks of the teenaged Rosemary, who lived in the house years before. Though she knows she needs to focus on the present, Malorie finds herself inexorably drawn into the past…

July, 1930. Rosemary lives in the Marsh House with her austere father, surrounded by unspoken truths and rumours. So when the glamorous Lafferty family move to the village, she succumbs easily to their charm. Dazzled by the beautiful Hilda and her dashing brother, Franklin, Rosemary fails to see the danger that lurks beneath their bright façades…

As Malorie reads on, the boundaries between past and present begin to blur, in this haunting novel about family, obligation and deeply buried secrets.

Format: eARC (352 pages)             Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 3rd March 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

Initially the most obvious connection between the two women – Malorie and Rosemary – is the Marsh House of the title, a remote house close to marshland on the North Norfolk coast. By the time Malorie, along with her daughter Franny, arrives there it has become rather rundown and has all the features of an old, neglected building. ‘The house was quiet. Not silent, it was never completely silent: there was a constant undercurrent of creaks and whispers and rustles, as if it were being tossed about on the sea.’

The book features that oft-used narrative device: the secret journal. Although I recognise that discovery of a journal adds an air of mystery, I’m never quite sure about the choice of this over an additional first person narrative, finding it difficult to get past the artificiality of it. However I appreciate this is a reservation others may not share.

Writing from an unspecified place of confinement, Rosemary’s testimony unfolds bit by bit, gradually revealing the events that resulted in her finding herself in that situation. It’s a story of a vulnerable, naive young woman who, lacking the influence of a mother, finds herself taken advantage of in the most despicable way. It also explores the desire by some members of society to conceal things for the sake of appearances, the view of illegitimacy as a sign of moral turpitude or even a disease inherited from a degenerate mother. (Incidentally, I was puzzled by Rosemary’s lack of curiosity and inaction as regards her mother’s situation.)

Malorie becomes obsessed with Rosemary’s story, seeking to find out more about the events described and what happened to Rosemary. It also provides a form of distraction from her more immediate worries. The inhabitants of the village seen strangely unwilling to talk about Rosemary and the past history of Marsh House but eventually Malorie finds the answers she is looking for. She discovers a closer connection than she might have imagined. Although I’m not sure it will come as complete surprise to many readers, the circumstances may well do.

A standout feature of the book is the description of the local landscape, especially the bleak and deserted marshland around Marsh House which give an underlying eerie quality to the story. Being set in winter, with heavy snow blocking the roads and preventing any means of escape, adds to the feeling of claustrophobia.  Additional otherworldy elements contribute to the sense of unease: the deserted (or is it) cottage across the road, the telephone that rings but which only Malorie hears, the shadowy figure she believes she glimpses – ‘the dark shadow she kept seeing… as if there was something out there that was malign, that wanted to hurt them’. I was particularly struck by mention of a sampler hanging on the wall of one of the bedrooms depicting former inhabitants of the house which made me think of the M. R. James’ ghost story ‘The Mezzotint’. But are these things the product of Malorie’s mental turmoil caused by the breakdown of her marriage, her overuse of medication, her feverish imagination or something supernatural? The occasional sections by a third narrator perhaps give a clue.

The Marsh House is described by the publisher’s as ‘part ghost story, part novel of suspense’ and it certainly delivers both those elements. It’s full of atmosphere and an absorbing read.

I received a review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

In three words: Atmospheric, intriguing, mysterious

Try something similarCall of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks

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Zoe SomervilleAbout the Author

Zoë is a writer and English teacher. Her debut novel, The Night of the Flood, was published in September 2020 by Head of Zeus. It is inspired by her home county, Norfolk and the devastating flood of the 1950s. Her second novel, The Marsh House is set in the same austere seascape of the Norfolk coast and is about mothers, daughters and ghosts.

Zoë has worked as an English teacher all over the world. This has included teaching English in Hagi, Japan, the Loire Atlantique, France and the Basque Country; several years in comprehensive schools in South London, Bath and Bristol; four years for the Hospital Education Rehabilitation Service in Somerset; and an international school in Washington, D.C. After completing a creative writing MA at Bath Spa University in 2016, she now combines writing and tutoring, and is settled in Bath with her family. (Bio: Author website)

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