Book Review: The Woman in the Mirror by Rebecca James
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Minotaur Books (March 17, 2020)
Length: 368 pages
Author Information: Website
The Woman in the Mirror by Rebecca James genuinely surprised me. Normally I am skeptical whenever I see books described as “modern Gothic” because often I find the term never means what you think it means, but whether it was because I had no expectations or something else, I really enjoyed this one.
Told through alternating past and present timelines, this haunting novel takes us to the Cornwall coast, where an old ruined estate called Winterbourne Hall sits overlooking the sea. Rumored to be cursed because of its unusual provenance in the early 19th century and the strange stories which have surrounded the mansion since its construction, it was home to Captain Jonathan de Grey in 1947, who hired a young governess named Alice Miller to look after his son and daughter following the death of their mother. Upon arrival, Alice immediately falls under the house’s quiet and alluring spell, becoming infatuated with her handsome new employer. She also becomes charmed by his twin children Edmund and Constance, despite their troubled and sometimes mean-spirited natures.
Skip forward to the present day, New York City art gallery curator Rachel Wright has always felt adrift, longing for a family history she’ll never know, having been adopted. After discovering that her birth mother had died years ago, Rachel had long since given up hope of finding out where she came from, until out of the blue one day, she receives a letter of inheritance from across the ocean from an unknown English aunt, leaving her Winterbourne Hall. Seizing at this opportunity to learn more about her heritage, Rachel travels to Cornwall to see the house that now belongs to her, hoping to reveal the secrets of the past and how she is connected to the de Grey family who used to live there.
But within Winterbourne, Rachel uncovers a lot more than her family history. Tragedy and madness once lurked here, the decades of rage and grief trapped in the mansion’s dark halls. At times, Rachel feels like there’s a presence in the house with her, even when she knows she’s alone.
I had no idea what I was walking into when I picked up The Woman in the Mirror, but it certainly wasn’t this fascinating mix of mystery and suspense, with even a touch of horror thrown in. Initially, I found myself preparing to settle in with what I thought was a post-war historical drama, following naïve and starry-eyed Alice Miller as she takes on her new position as the de Grey governess. Having experienced her own losses during the war, she is looking forward to starting her life over in this idyllic setting, and soon even begins to regard Jonathan, Edmund, and Constance as her new family. Before long though, there’s a noticeable shift in the tone of the novel as Alice’s thoughts gradually turn from optimistic hope to disturbing obsession. That, and the spooky environment of the house starts playing tricks on her mind, making her hear and see things that might not be there. Oh, and we certainly can’t forget about the twins. Those creepy, creepy twins. Seriously, why do children in these Gothic novels always have to be so freaky?
Then, interspersed with these 1947 chapters are the ones following Rachel Wright in the present. Again, things in her storyline start off rather innocuously, painting a picture of a successful but unsatisfied woman. Winterbourne was supposed to be her chance to find some answers and finally move on, yet instead she finds herself drawn deeper into the estate’s secrets, unable to leave even when urged by her boyfriend to sell the land and return to New York. As more is revealed about Winterbourne’s complicated past, Rachel is determined to see this mystery through to the end, even though she risks the house’s malicious essence seeping deeper into her bones. I was pleasantly surprised to find a speculative element, however light it might be, threaded through the storyline, just a hint of ghostly paranormal horror to spice things up. The final parts of the book were also worthy of a pulse-pounding thriller, complete with a twist and too conveniently explained ending, but at least it was satisfying.
Overall, I was impressed with Rebecca James’ ability to create this dark, suspenseful and eerie mood, the way it creeps up on you when you least expect it. The sense of mystery was well-maintained, driving my interest in the dual storylines unfolding. The Woman in the Mirror was a good read, living up to its Gothic atmosphere, and I will be interested to see what the author writes next.