The Unquiet House is Alison Littlewood’s third novel. It is also her most complex, with a multi-stranded narrative covering three distinct time periods with several brave choices which may mean it will be her most divisive and discussed story to date.
The novel opens with Emma Dean making her first visit to Mire House, which she has inherited from a mysterious relative she had little knowledge of. The reader learns, with Emma, a little of the history of the property, in particular the story of its bitter and lonely first owner. Then there is the introduction of Charlie, a relative of Emma’s whose motives for his appearance at the house are not immediately clear. The mystery deepens and questions are formulated, with the author’s voice strongly evident throughout as the story begins. If you have had the good fortune to witness Littlewood read at one of our events, or at Fantasycon, you will be hard-pressed not to hear her soft Yorkshire accent as you slowly become engrossed by this captivating opening to the novel. The softness of the prose balances the creepier aspects – particularly the chilling description of the worn suit Emma discovers – and leads the reader to form an almost instantaneous bond with the main character.
However, just as you have become convinced that this is to be Emma’s story, the author makes the first of her brave choices by taking the narrative back to 1973. From here it is clear that what we have read over the first hundred pages is one period in the long history of Mire House, and that this is in fact the House’s story we are being treated to. The main character of this part is a boy called Frank, of whom Emma had met briefly as an adult as a custodian of the local church. Littlewood makes great use of regional speech to communicate the the personality of the characters and the time period. Frank’s friend Sam, a sly and manipulative boy, dares him to enter Mire House in order to steal a souvenir from the reclusive old man that lives there. Wracked by guilt, Frank returns the item and strikes up a tentative friendship with the man. Just as it looks like a happy outcome may be on the cards the malevolent sprit at work in Mire House intervenes with crushing results. Littlewood has the ability to make you care for the characters – within only a handful of pages. It is a rare talent indeed that can bring a tear to the eye at the fate of a minor character.
In part three, the reader is taken to 1939 where they find Aggie, the mother of Frank, as a girl on the cusp of womanhood who hopes to escape farm life and become a housekeeper at the nearby Mire House which is nearing completion, soon to host Mrs Hollingworth and her new-born child. Aggie’s hopes are scuppered when Mrs Hollingworth loses her child and decides not to move to the house – instead declaring she will never set foot in the property and that it will never be filled with love. This is once more an accomplished evocation of the period with references to the blackout and the famous Chamberlain radio message nicely woven into events. There is a very real sense that everything is about to change. Not just for Aggie but for the world as a whole.
The finale returns to Emma in 2013. The gap of over two hundred pages means it takes a while to get back into the rhythm of Emma’s narrative. You have barely re-established your connection with her when Littlewood delivers a crushing twist that will be a great point of discussion amongst those who have read the novel. It is another brave choice that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, may have derailed the book. Littlewood is able to pull it off because she has seeded several hints as to the nature of the hauntings of Mire House, careful to position the house itself at the centre of the plot whilst spreading the role of protagonist. Ultimately this isn’t so much a haunted house story as it is a story of how our lives, actual and wished for, can become ghosts that haunt us.
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Release Date: 10 April 2014
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