I do love a book with a grand manor house as the backdrop of an atmospheric story. Linda Gillard's latest novel, House of Silence, has both along with an interesting cast of quirky characters and a mysterious story that unravels at a rapid pace as each lie, secret and deception is exposed. Gwen Rowland gets more than she bargained for when she convinces Alfie Donovan, an actor she meets during the filming of a costume drama, to take her to Creake Hall for the holidays.
"We were kindred spirits in a way. Detached, self-centred, yet both obsessed with the past. Our past. The difference was, I had no family and Alfie did. He had a family--a large one--but mostly he behaved as if he didn't, as if he wanted no part of them, however much they might want a piece of him."
An only child who grew up in an unhappy environment of hard-living relatives, Gwen has had to take care of herself for most of her life. Her mother, aunt and then uncle each died early as the result of destructive lifestyles. When she was only twelve Gwen woke up Christmas morning to a mother who had overdosed and carries with her painful memories. It's natural she's drawn to Alfie, a charmer with curly blond locks and eloquent brown eyes. It's only later she wonders whether it was Alfie's looks and easygoing personality or his situation that attracted her, as she has always dreamed of being part of a large, raucous family.
Alfie grew up in just such a household with four older sisters and a famous, though eccentric mother. He jokes about having an alter ego, which turns out to be a fictional character well-known and well-loved by so many children for which he served as inspiration. His mother is the author of a successful and long running series of books about a boy named Tom Dickon Harry and his many adventures. Only the books have taken on a life of their own and overshadow Alfie's career--he's known less for his own work than for his mother's creation. So it's with some resignation that he agrees to spend each Christmas at Creake Hall with his family, which for Alfie feels like a burden and chore, yet to Gwen sounds like a dream. He agrees to take her to his family's celebrations but tells her it may well be the second worst Christmas she's ever had. She has no idea just how correct he'll be.
Alfie does warn Gwen that when he's with his family he's a different person, but she's almost shocked by how much he changes when they arrive at Creake Hall, a large Elizabethan manor with extensive gardens. He's driven by duty more than love and seems almost cold in his manner towards his sisters. The eldest, Viv, has remained at home to take care of their mother who is in a fragile state of health. Rae rarely leaves her room and it's obvious that her memories are somewhat garbled. Hattie is closest in age to Alfie, sweet tempered but shy. Gwen feels a natural affinity towards Hattie as the two share a love of needlework and textiles. Gwen's work as wardrobe mistress and Hattie's skill with a needle mean the two have lots to talk about.
Although once at the Hall Alfie distances himself from Gwen, she discovers that she gets on well with his family. Rae finds her to be a sharp and capable young woman and both Viv and Hattie treat her as an honored guest. She has less success with Fan, when Alfie's two sisters who live away from home arrive. Frances is a successful London photographer, beautiful and elegant and always the first to leave in any relationship. Alfie has always been closest to Fan who seems to resent Gwen. Deborah, however, a divorced school teacher, treats Gwen with as much warmth as the other two sisters.
What begins as a promising holiday takes on a confusing hue when Gwen begins doubting Alfie is who he says he is. She's confronted with inconsistencies between what Alfie has told her and what she sees and hears in Creake Hall. Gwen is even more discomfited to find she is drawn to the Hall's handsome gardener, Marek, slightly older and of Scottish-Polish origin. He is a man of few words but of surprising depth and sensitivity, and it appears he has a few secrets of his own. When Gwen and Hattie set about working on a patchwork quilt that has been languishing unfinished for years, Gwen discovers proof of the family's deceit and begins questioning Alfie's part in it until the lies begin unraveling.
House of Silence isn't exactly a tale of suspense, and it's not exactly a romance either, though it has elements of both. It is to some extent a family drama, though the family is quite idiosyncratic. Part of the problem Linda has had in finding a publisher for this book (and why she chose to self-publish it) is it doesn't fit easily into one category, and certainly this does cross genres. I found it all the more appealing for this reason. Gwen is an entirely likable young woman who though well grounded discovers she still has ghosts of her own to exorcise. Linda's books are consistently well written, entertaining novels and if there is a common theme it is that she doesn't shy away from writing about people who are often damaged in some way or psychologically hurting. And she does so with grace and humor and always in a hopeful manner. I very much enjoyed House of Silence (and would be hard pressed to choose a favorite of her books now), and should mention I loved the references to needlework (they made my own fingers itchy to pull out a needle and thread), which you don't often find in novels!
I've previously enjoyed Linda's novels, Emotional Geology and Star Gazing, which are available (along with House of Silence) in the US through Amazon as (very economically priced) ebooks (for both Kindle and PC or other mobile devices). You can check out her Amazon page here. Linda's newest book Untying the Knot, has just gone on sale at Amazon (here and in the UK). Check back tomorrow for the first of two guest posts by Linda.