The Upstairs House

Written by Julia Fine
Review by Clarissa Harwood

Margaret Wise Brown may not be a household name, but her book Goodnight Moon, published in 1947, is one of the most popular children’s books of all time. In weird and wonderful ways, that book and its author form the foundation (pun very much intended) of The Upstairs House. This is not a historical novel in the strict sense of the term: most of the novel is set in 2017 and focuses on Megan, an academic and new mother haunted by her unfinished dissertation, which is about modernism and children’s literature. She is also haunted by Margaret Wise Brown, a minor figure in her dissertation. Feeling ambivalent about motherhood and misunderstood by her loved ones, Megan finds a turquoise door in the stairwell of her condo building that leads to Margaret in 1941. Eventually she also meets Michael Strange, Margaret’s real-life female lover, an aggressive presence who demands that Megan modify her dissertation by writing about her. Complicating matters further, Megan can’t predict when she’ll encounter Margaret and Michael: they appear freely in different places in Megan’s world. Wondering if these women from the 1940s are really there or the manifestation of postpartum psychosis, Megan alternates between ignoring them and taking their advice, sometimes too literally.

Megan’s anxieties about motherhood and her dissertation combine to form a many-layered, deep exploration of what it means to be a mother, a daughter, and a woman. The story takes the reader to some strange places: moments of pure gothic terror mix with others that made me laugh out loud as I recognized truths about my own identity as a woman. Witty, dark, and unflinchingly honest, this is a gem of a novel that defies genre.