Alone in the world, Elspeth Swansome takes the position of nanny to a family on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea.
Her charge, Mary, hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin, William – just days after their former nanny disappeared.
No one will speak of what happened to William. Just as no one can explain the hypnotic lullabies sung in empty corridors. Nor the strange dolls that appear in abandoned rooms. Nor the faint whistling that comes in the night . . .
As winter draws in and passage to the mainland becomes impossible, Elspeth finds herself trapped.
But is this house haunted by the ghosts of the past? Or the secrets of the living?
Yes, I am back in full Spooky Season mode for this week’s post! Rebecca Netley’s The Whistling has been getting all of the accolades over on bookish Twitter and was definitely on my ‘most anticipated spooky reads’ list for 2021 – so as soon as the nights started to draw in and Spooky Season could be said to have officially started, I took the opportunity to get reading!
Scotland, 1860, and young nanny Elspeth Swansome arrives on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea to take care of nine-year-old Mary, who hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin brother, William. Having recently experienced her own personal tragedy, Elspeth is determined to save the little girl from the asylum – a fate that her hard-hearted aunt, Violet Gillies, seems to be planning for her.
Convinced that with some much-needed love and attention she can encourage the little girl to speak again, Elspeth tries to discover more about William – and about Hettie, her predecessor as the children’s nanny who apparently left her employment without warning just a few days before William’s death. But no one on Skelthsea will talk about what happened to William – or about the dark rumours that surface whenever Hettie’s name is mentioned.
When Elspeth begins to find strange dolls in long-abandoned rooms, and to hear the shrill pierce of a whistle cutting through the dead of night, she starts to realise that the cause of Mary’s muteness may lie in more than just neglect. What is Mary so afraid of that she refuses to speak? As Elspeth investigates further, the secrets and superstitions of Skelthsea begin to emerge, putting both her and her charge in danger.
The Whistling is an impressive debut that draws on all of the tropes of the classic ghost story, combining them with folkloric elements and a stunningly atmospheric setting to create a brilliantly eerie and otherworldly read. Lovers of the classic ghostly tales of M R James and the gothic eeriness of Wilkie Collins will feel instantly at home on Skelthsea, whilst readers of more modern takes on the genre will find the claustrophobia of Skelthsea – and, in particular, of Elspeth and Mary’s ‘home’ on the island, Iskar – offers the same creeping chills as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or Daphne Du Maurier’s Manderley.
For me, the atmosphere of the novel was definitely one of its major strengths. The faded glory and crumbling chill of Iskar seeps off the page and I could practically feel the icy sea frets that roll into the bay at night. Rebecca Netley has also perfectly captured the feel of being an outsider in a small community and she uses this to great affect to make Elspeth – and by turn, the reader – uncertain of how to distinguish between superstition, rumour, and hidden truths.
The drawing out of the island’s secrets takes time and, if I had one criticism of The Whistling, it’s that the pacing can be a bit uneven. I raced through the first half of the novel, keen to discover whether the sinister dolls and strange noises were the work of human or supernatural entities, but then found the pace lulling in the mid-section, when the plot seemed to pivot towards more domestic dramas and personal backstories. Whilst these were interesting, they were quite a distinct change from the supernatural shenanigans of the opening half and, briefly, appeared to take the novel in quite a different direction. The pace picks up again towards the end of the book – and the supernatural plot moves back into gear with a vengeance – but, after a period of relative calm, I was left feeling like the dramatic reveal at the end was a little rushed.
The evocative atmosphere and story twists kept me reading though the slower sections and I’m glad I pushed onwards because, overall, The Whistling is one of those slow-burn ghost stories that creeps into your mind and lives there rent-free until you suddenly find yourself jumping at shadows and sleeping with the lights on. With it’s isolated setting and dour atmosphere, there are definite shades of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black here and, just as in that novel, the spooks come from gradually dawning realisation and slowly built horror rather than dramatic jump scares.
I also found myself wholly rooting for Elspeth in her relentless pursuit of the truth. Her determination to help and protect Mary is touching – as is Mary’s own growing affection for her new nanny. I was particularly impressed by how much of Mary’s personality and character Rebecca Netley has conveyed through gestures, small interactions, and subtle movements – proof, if it were needed, that characters don’t need to speak to make themselves heard on the page.
The Whistling is a fine addition to the resurgent tradition of autumnal ghost stories. It is clear from reading it that Rebecca Netley both knows and loves the genre and her novel pays homage to all of the classics. Look closely and you’ll see the reverberations of everything from James’ The Turn of the Screw to Sarah Waters’ more recent The Little Stranger. Yet The Whistling is also a ghost story all of its own – a brilliantly evocative novel that will reward patient readers with that spine-tingling feeling.
The Whistling by Rebecca Netley is published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 14 October 2021 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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