House of Glass

Written by Susan Fletcher
Review by Douglas Kemp

Clara Waterfield grew up in the early years of the 20th century with the rare medical condition of having extraordinarily delicate bones, liable to break with any significant contact with other objects. Disabled and feeling freakish and unattractive, she finds solace in the botanical collection at Kew; this, somewhat surprisingly, leads to her taking on a project to manage the installation of tropical plants supplied by Kew in a newly-built domestic glasshouse in Gloucestershire during the long and hot summer of 1914.

The house is Shadowbrook, owned by a mysterious and mostly absent Mr Fox, and Clara, inquisitive and assertive, settles into the quiet household to establish the new plants. She soon begins to sense that all is not quite right. Clara’s singular personality, combined with her unusual appearance, makes her a subject of much interest in the house and the nearby village of Barcombe-on-the-Hill. There are unexplained phenomena, which Clara, as a committed atheist, refuses to accept as the work of a supernatural presence. But as she learns more about the previous owner, one Veronique Pettigrew, and the notorious reputation she had in the surrounding villages, and when Clara herself is subject to activity which she cannot easily explain—then her certainties begin to wobble a little, and she finds herself in a vortex of mystery and untruth, which go to very heart of her own identity and background.

This is a beautifully written novel, poetic and acutely observant. The characters throb with life: Clara is a wonderful creation, her feisty eccentricities reverberate throughout the gothic tale, and it is firmly anchored in that 1914 summer, so coveted by fiction writers as a haven of never-to-be-repeated innocence and content – except that for Clara, life at Shadowbrook was anything but pure and gentle.