By Cynthia Ayala
1921, England, Jo Manders is a widow, her husband lost, reports MIA over Germany. Now she is working as a paid companion for his wealthy aunt at Wych Elm House, where the past lingers in the shadows and haunts the night. Something is lurking at Wych Elm House and it wants Jo.
What makes this tale so tantalizing is the fact that it is much more than it appears. There is no indication that this would be a very gothic narrative featuring a damsel in distress, the haunted past, and the family secret. The title gives a hint, but it also works on a contemporary level. In fact, the opening pages are very reminiscent of just the standard historical fiction tale. By doing that, Simone is luring the reader into a false sense of security and indeed, when the hauntings begin, they are quiet scenes that make the reader shiver.
There is not a lot going on within the context and for most of it, the pace is rather slow, yet the characters and their situations are drawing in the reader. 1921 was a very different time than now, and women situations were very different, very restrictive and condemning. Jobs were hard to find, and for Jo she was in that position until she got married, but then her husband went missing and to make matters were, she was never officially declared a widow, stripping her of much. With the world against her, Jo remains a headstrong woman, and within the world of the past, that makes her very relatable. She won’t let the world beat her down, yet her situation has made her a damsel in distress, which is very unfortunate, but it is a woman, Dottie, who comes to her rescue. These are both very powerful characters, making the reading enjoyable. They are not friends—Dottie is rather standoffish—but together they make an unyielding team and highlight that they don’t need anyone to save them. On the downside, these are two characters who always have their chin up in the air, figuratively, and when faced with something they don’t like, they are incredibly standoffish. That’s not to say it doesn’t fit the context, but in some of those situations, a sly remark brought on by charisma would have made those scenes powerful and would have made the characters more relatable.
The hauntings themselves are also very intricate, they built the tension, they built up slowly, manifesting in more tangible ways for both the character and the reader. The details are written so intricately and flow with the text and the story telling. These scenes are mesmerizing and draw the reader in, submerging them into the eerie atmosphere of the novel, making them so intoxicating. Those details are so small, but they are incredibly powerful to read and creating such a strong atmosphere for the reader. They capture the true intent of the text wonderfully and highlight the character dynamics and the outer plotlines of the story making this a very cohesive, frightening, and captivating read. (★★★★☆ | A-)