House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

I loved Susan Fletcher’s Corrag, a novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, but for some reason have never read any of her other books until now. That has clearly been a mistake because House of Glass is another impressive novel. Although it is a very different type of story from Corrag, there are still some similarities, such as the beautiful writing and the interesting, unusual protagonist.

The novel is set in 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. Our narrator is Clara Waterfield, a young woman who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, better known as brittle bone disease. Because of her condition, Clara has led a very sheltered life, kept indoors where she is less likely to fall and injure herself. She has made the best of her situation, using books to educate herself on the people and places she is never likely to see, but still she longs to go out into the world and have the experiences that other people take for granted. When she is twenty years old, Clara loses her mother to cancer and, left alone in their London home with her well-meaning but over-protective stepfather, she takes her first tentative steps towards taking control of her own life.

Venturing as far as Kew Gardens, Clara discovers a love of plants and returns day after day to learn everything the head gardener can teach her about botany. Her new skills lead to her being summoned to Shadowbrook, a large estate in Gloucestershire, where the owner, Mr Fox, is looking for an expert to help fill his new glasshouse with plants from Kew. Almost as soon as Clara arrives at Shadowbrook, however, she becomes aware that something is wrong. Why do the housekeeper and the maids seem so afraid? Could the house really be haunted by the ghost of a former occupant, Veronique Pettigrew? And is the mysterious Mr Fox ever going to make an appearance?

House of Glass seems at first to be a typical Gothic ghost story. It certainly has all the elements of one: a neglected mansion with secrets hidden behind closed doors; unexplained noises in the night; servants who hint at trouble in the house’s past; and various other eerie occurrences which may or may not have a rational explanation. There are definite shades of classic novels such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca or, to give a more recent comparison, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Throughout the first half of the book the sense of mystery builds as we try to work out what is really happening at Shadowbrook and Clara is as much in the dark as we are. Because of the way her life has been until now, her contact with other people has been very limited which means, as well as trying to solve the mysteries of Shadowbrook, she also has a lot to learn about social relationships and human nature. As she moves around the house and its grounds, asking questions and making observations, she not only makes some discoveries about Mr Fox and the Pettigrews, but she grows in confidence as a person too. I didn’t always like Clara quite as much as I felt I should have done, but I admired her for her strength and resilience.

In the second half of the book, everything changes; some revelations are made which send the story in a different and slightly unexpected direction and although some of my questions – and Clara’s – were answered, I wasn’t entirely convinced by these new plot developments. I wasn’t disappointed, exactly, but I did feel that I was reading a different type of story than it had seemed to be at first.

Now I need to go back and read some of the other Susan Fletcher books I seem to have missed out on over the last few years. Apart from this one and Corrag, have you read any you can recommend?

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

Corrag by Susan Fletcher

I first became aware of this book when Boof of The Book Whisperer said it was one of her favourites. I’ve been curious to see why she loved it so much and now that I’ve read it I agree that it’s a great book, although I didn’t think so at first.

In Corrag Susan Fletcher looks at one tragic moment in Scotland’s history – the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 in which thirty-eight members of the MacDonald clan were murdered by English soldiers and forty more died of exposure as they tried to escape. The story is narrated by Corrag, a young woman who has been branded a witch and sentenced to death for her involvement with the MacDonalds and the part she played in trying to prevent the massacre. As Corrag sits in her cell awaiting her death, she is visited by Charles Leslie, an Irish clergyman and Jacobite who is trying to find evidence to prove that the Protestant King William III was responsible for what happened at Glencoe.

Corrag tells Charles Leslie about her childhood in the north of England and the day her mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, told her to ride into Scotland, where she believed she would be safe. With only her grey mare for company, Corrag rode “north and west” and made a new home for herself near the valley of Glencoe. Here she met the people of the MacDonald clan and experienced true friendship and love for the first time in her life. As Leslie listens to Corrag’s memories he begins to learn the truth about the Glencoe Massacre and at the same time is forced to change his own preconceived ideas about Corrag herself.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started reading. I actually put it down after the first chapter and decided it wasn’t for me. But then something made me pick it up a few days later and try again. Corrag’s narrative style is so unusual and original, it took me a few chapters to get used to it but after that I started to fall in love with the beautiful, lyrical writing. The writing style gives the book a very strong sense of time and place and I felt as if I was really listening to a voice from the past. Corrag is also very observant and appreciates the little details of life that most of us would never even notice. I loved seeing the beauty of the Highlands through her eyes as she rode through Scotland on her grey mare.

Each chapter of Corrag’s story is followed by a letter written by Charles Leslie to his wife at home in Ireland, telling her about his experiences in Scotland and how his opinions about Corrag are changing as he learns more about her life. Corrag of course has not done anything to deserve the accusations of witchcraft; she’s an innocent woman who loves the natural world and has a knowledge of herbalism and healing, like her mother before her and like many other innocent women who were burned at the stake. And yet no matter how hard things get for Corrag and how much cruelty she experiences at the hands of other people she remains a loving, kind-hearted person and never loses her faith in human nature.

Corrag is a beautiful, moving story and I’m so glad I didn’t give up on it.

Note: This book has also been published under the titles of Witch Light and The Highland Witch.