The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

This is Katherine Clements’ third novel set in 17th century England, but it has a different feel from the previous two. Rather than being a straight historical novel like The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, The Coffin Path is a ghost story with a lonely rural setting and this time there is much less focus on the political and social events of the period.

It’s 1674 and there are signs that spring is on its way to the Yorkshire moors. The first lamb of the season is about to make its appearance, but it is a difficult birth and requires human assistance. Mercy Booth of Scarcross Hall, who farms the land and tends the sheep for her elderly father, helps to deliver the lamb into the world but its mother dies in the process – the first of several bad omens. Next, three ancient gold coins go missing from her father’s collection and reappear in unexpected places – and then Mercy begins to hear noises coming from a disused bedchamber upstairs.

Around this time, a stranger arrives looking for work. His name is Ellis Ferreby and although the local people are slow to trust him, he soon proves himself to be a good shepherd and a reliable worker. Ellis, however, is a man with secrets and it seems that he could have reasons of his own for coming to Scarcross Hall.

We slowly get to know both Mercy and Ellis as their stories alternate with each other throughout the novel. We hear what Mercy’s life has been like, growing up without a mother, with only her eccentric father, Bartram, and the servants for company – and we learn of her hopes for the future, which centre around the knowledge that one day, as her father’s only heir, she will inherit her beloved Scarcross Hall. As for Ellis, his background is shrouded in mystery and the truth about both his past and his purpose in being at Scarcross is only revealed later in the novel.

The 17th century is obviously a period which interests Katherine Clements and of which she has a lot of knowledge: The Crimson Ribbon was the story of a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell, while The Silvered Heart was about a highwaywoman in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Coffin Path is set just a few decades after those two books yet I felt that the story would have worked just as well if it had been set in almost any other period, either an earlier century or a later one. Although the effects of the recent Civil War do still linger in the lives of our characters, this only has any real significance towards the end of the book – otherwise, perhaps because Scarcross Hall is so isolated from the wider world, there is a general feeling of timelessness.

However, what the novel lacks in sense of time is made up for in sense of place. There are some wonderful descriptions of the moors surrounding Scarcross Hall, bringing to life this harsh but beautiful landscape. We also explore some of the old traditions and beliefs which survive in this remote part of England: the White Ladies is an ancient stone circle which the villagers associate with evil, while the Coffin Path of the title refers to the old track down which coffins would be carried from the moors to the church for burial. It’s no wonder that in a place like this, people like Ellis and Mercy are viewed with suspicion and distrust – Ellis because he is an outsider and Mercy because she is an independent, unconventional woman, still unmarried in her thirties and doing ‘a man’s work’ on the farm.

I enjoyed following the personal stories of both main characters and I liked the supernatural elements too: they were suitably eerie, but at the same time subtle enough to keep me wondering whether there really were ghosts involved or whether something else was happening. My only problem with the book (other than the fact that, like many novels these days, it is written in present tense) was that there were times when the plot seemed to be moving forward very slowly. It didn’t help that the first few chapters are devoted to describing, in great detail, the birth of a lamb; I would have preferred a stronger opening to pull me straight into the story.

Of the three books by Katherine Clements I have read, I think I liked both of the others better than this one, but it’s good to see that she has tried something slightly different here. What will she write next, I wonder?

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Gerard Freeman has grown up in Mawson, Australia, listening to his mother’s tales of her own childhood at Staplefield, a country estate in England. However, when she finds him going through her private papers one day she is furious and from that moment she refuses to say any more about her past.

Gerard continues to investigate his mother’s background and is intrigued when he discovers some ghost stories written by his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley. Unable to talk to his mother about his discoveries, the only person Gerard can confide in is his English penpal, Alice Jessel. It’s only as Gerard grows older and uncovers more of his family history that he begins to understand the full significance of Viola’s stories and how they relate to his own life.

The Ghost Writer was published in 2004 and seems to have been very popular at the time of its publication, yet I somehow hadn’t even heard of it until I picked it up in the library a couple of weeks ago and thought it sounded perfect for the R.I.P. challenge and for this time of year. And it was a perfect choice – I was very impressed by this book. The closest comparison I can make is to Possession by A.S. Byatt. Both books are very well written and have similar structures, with different sections written in different styles and with letters and stories woven into the plot. I did find this an easier and more entertaining read than Possession, though, and at times it also reminded me of The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

Viola Hatherley’s ghost stories were my favourite parts of the novel. They were very creepy and I could really believe they’d been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the way the ghost stories were connected to Gerard’s own story and yet they would have been good enough to stand alone as a separate short story collection too. Often when I read a book containing stories-within-stories I find myself becoming impatient and wanting to get back to the main plot, but not this time! There were four of Viola’s stories included in the book (one, The Revenant, is much longer than the other three and almost a novella). The highlight for me was The Gift of Flight, with its descriptions of a sinister doll-like child and a mysterious fog that fills the reading room at the British Museum.

Looking through some other reviews of this book, I’ve noticed that a lot of readers felt let down by the ending. I don’t usually mind being left to make up my own mind at the end of a book, but I can definitely understand why people would be disappointed by the way this one ended. It was very ambiguous and left so much open to interpretation. Despite the ending though, there were so many other things to love about this book: the elegant writing, the intricate plot, the clever structure, the gothic atmosphere, the eerie, unsettling mood and most of all, those excellent Victorian-style ghost stories!