‘The Two Houses sit grey and brooding beneath a pale sky.
They cling to the hillside, cowering from the wind, because always, before everything up here, there is the wind.
The Two Houses were not always two. But if it is human to build – even up here, in this blasted northern hinterland – it is human to break, too.’
After an acclaimed career in ceramics, Jay herself has cracked. Recovering from a breakdown, she and her husband Simon move to the desolate edges of the north of England, where they find and fall in love with the Two Houses: a crumbling property whose central rooms were supposedly so haunted that a previous owner had them cut out from the building entirely.
But on uprooting their city life and moving to the sheltered grey village of Hestle, Jay and Simon discover it’s not only the Two Houses that seems to be haunted by an obscure past. It becomes increasingly clear that the villagers don’t want them there at all – and when building work to make the two houses whole again starts, a discovery is made that will unearth decades-old secrets…
But who in this village has been hiding them?
At first glance, this appears to be a ghost story. While the writing style is atmospheric, creepy and gothic, the content is more grounded. The ghosts are emotional, bad memories and entrenched secrets kept by the living rather than the dead.
Escaping to the country seems like a rest cure for Jay and Simon, reeling from Jay’s emotional breakdown when she discovers she cannot have children. A ceramic artist Jay’s work suffers until she shies away from it and everyone attached to it. Simon loves her but doesn’t necessarily understand her. His constant presence is claustrophobic for his free-spirited wife. She doesn’t want to share her emotions just to make him feel worthwhile.
So when they find a quirky, broken down property, two houses severed in their past. Jay loves it, and Simon who wants his wife to recover agrees, although he is looking for a bolt hole and she is searching for a new life.
The villagers are suspicious of the interloper’s motives and the reasons for this gradually become clear as the story progresses. It’s not just because they want to protect the secrets of the old houses, their way of life has disintegrated with the closure of the mines and farms, young people want to leave, and only the old ones and those who cannot survive elsewhere are left. They want to protect their way of life even if it’s not what it once was.
The characters are realistic, as is their behaviour when confronted with newcomers. Jay becomes obsessed with the house’s secrets to the exclusion of all else, but maybe this is part of her healing process?
The plot reveals its clues and misinformation as it progresses, the pacing is slow because of the detailed descriptions and the internal conflict of the main characters.
Mysterious and suspenseful but not written in a commercial, contemporary style, it is all about the characters and their interaction with the setting. It resonates as you read and the two houses’ story is infinitely sadder than you first imagine.
I liked it and found the ending particularly poignant. It conveys the sense of stability and people becoming as one with the land well. It is slow and maybe too detailed in places, but it does fit with a gothic writing style and is a lovely example of this.
I received a copy of this book from Hodder and Stoughton via NetGalley in return for an honest review.