An infamous seance. A house burdened by grief. A secret that can no longer stay buried.
England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex to photograph the contents of the house for auction. Desperate for money after falling on hard times, she accepts the commission.
On arrival, she learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, the consequences of which still haunt the family thirty years later. Before the Clewer’s leave England for good, the lady of the house has asked those who attended the original to come together to recreate the evening. Louisa soon becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house, unravelling the longheld secrets of what happened the night of the séance… and discovers her own fate is entwined with Clewer Hall’s.
Those who have followed the blog for a while will know that I love a well-turned mystery, have a fondness for historical fiction, and delight in the spine-tinging chill of a gothic ghost story. Combine the three together and add in one of my favourite authors and you’re well on your way to a winner with me!
Rhiannon Ward may be a new name but you’ll probably recognise Sarah Ward. I’ve featured her accomplished police procedural series, set in modern-day Derbyshire, on the blog a few times before and she’s definitely one of my favourite modern crime-fiction authors. Rhiannon Ward is a pseudonym for launching The Quickening, her first foray into historical fiction, although fans of Sarah’s previous novels will be pleased to find another well-turned mystery, albeit one filled with the gothic and supernatural, at the heart of this latest work.
Set in the afternmath of the First World War, The Quickening is a novel suffused with grief and its aftermath. Having lost her husband in the trenches, and her two sons from Spanish Flu soon after, Louisa Drew has resigned herself to be thankful for a life of dutiful wifehood – and a second chance at motherhood – with her staid and emotionally repressed second husband Edwin. But when her former employer offers her a lucrative commission amidst the faded glory of Clewer Hall, Louisa can’t resist one last chance to live the life she thought she’d lost.
Packing her camera equipment, she heads for Clewer Hall, another house in mourning for people and opportunities lost. But are the Clewer family all that they seem? Why does no one talk about the child seen in the garden? Or the piano that Louise can hear playing within long-deserted room? What happened during that infamous seance and why does it haunt the house still? And, most importantly, what does it want with Louisa and her unborn child?
The Quickening is packed to the rafters with so much atmosphere that it lifts off the page, enveloping the reader in it’s grasp. I could immediately envisage the faded glamour of Clewer Hall – from the remnants of the wisteria clinging to crumbling brickwork through to the sadness of a long-unused nursery with its broken chairs and barred windows, reading the book had me walking alongside Louisa as she gradually uncovered more and more of the house’s secrets.
Ward absoutely nails the atmosphere too. Clewer Hall, with its greatly reduced serving staff and impoverished family both still sticking rigourously to pre-War notions of social hierarchy, feels as if it is stuck in a time-warp, forever trapped on the evening of the seance in 1896. It lends a gothic tone to a novel that has a distinctly modern protagonist – Louise is forthright, determined, and has a refreshing lack of propriety that carries through Clewer Hall like a breath of fresh air.
Despite this modernity, Louisa doesn’t feel out of time or place. Having developed a successful career during the war, it makes sense for Louisa to yearn to retain this freedom, whilst also hoping to regain some of the stability she has lost with the death of her husband and sons. I really got a sense of the period as a time of change through Louisa – caught between the possibilities now afforded to her as an educated and capable woman in a world where war has upset traditional hierarchies, and Victorian attitudes that still demand a level of respectability and conformity from her, even at the expense of her own happiness. It’s fair to say that, as the book went on, I definitely became as invested in Louisa’s own personal dilemmas as I was in the resolution of Clewer Hall’s many mysteries, so much did I come to identify and empathise with her!
Without giving away any of the plot, which unravels with the skill and elegance demonstrated so ably in Ward’s previous novels, I will say that The Quickening infuses a very human tale of personal folly and family tragedy with a chilling slice of the supernatural. The spooky elements aren’t overplayed but, in the manner of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions or Sarah Waters The Little Stranger, something haunts the narrative and the characters, causing both them and the reader to question their sanity and actions. It’s brilliantly done and I raced through the book, desperate to know what happened back in 1896, and what would happen to Louisa and the Clewer family as a result.
As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved The Quickening. Combining a country house mystery with a classic ghost story was always going to be a winner for me, especially when its as well-written and atmospherically evocative as this. Fans of Laura Purcell and Stacey Halls will enjoy the lush atmosphere, supernatural happenings and chilling gothic overtones, whilst fans of Ward’s modern day procedurals will find a novel that retains Ward’s knack for strong characters and precision plotting whist transposing them onto a new era and genre.
The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze Books on 20 August 2020 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.
My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.