Book Review: The House of Whispers by Laura Purcell
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: Horror, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Books (June 9, 2020)
Length: 336 pages
Haunting Gothic horror with just the touch of the fae, The House of Whispers (also known as Bone China in the UK) is an evocative and atmospheric novel worthy of the Laura Purcell’s talent. Always reliable for a chilling and entertaining read, she’s fast becoming one of my favorite authors.
Set on the Cornish coast in an old mansion overlooking the sea-swept cliffs, the story follows Hester Why who has arrived to take up a position as a maid and nurse to ailing Miss Pinecroft, mistress of Morvoren House. While the work is not in the best location, there is a reason why Hester has taken a job in such a remote place far from the city. From the start, it is clear she is running away from something, and there are hints it might be related to an incident with her last employer. Now she’s a wanted woman, and the only clue as to why lies in the mysterious snuffbox she has hidden among her belongings, as well as a badly stained dress at the bottom of her trunk.
But Hester’s tale is not the only one in play here. Inserted into the narrative are interludes that flashback forty years ago, as a physician and researcher named Dr. Pinecroft travels to Morvoren House with his daughter, Louise. Having recently lost his wife and son to the consumption, Dr. Pinecroft has dedicated himself to finding a cure and believes that breathing in the fresh sea air of Cornwall might be the first step towards recovery for those afflicted. In the nearby caves, he has arranged to house a group of convicts with the disease—desperate men who have volunteered to be test subjects in exchange for freedom if their participation in the medical trials results in a breakthrough. Working as her father’s assistant, Louise helps look after his patients and also interacts with the household staff, a few of whom can be described as nothing else but strange. Filled with superstition, one of the maids is convinced of the existence of malicious faerie creatures that lurk in the wilds around Morvoren House, claiming they will make changelings of them all if they’re not careful.
The House of Whispers is the third novel I’ve read by Purcell, and it is another winner in my eyes. While its story might not be as terrifying as The Silent Companions or as tightly woven as The Poison Thread, I think fans of the author will find this one dripping with the same atmosphere of anxiety and dread as her other books, yet sufficiently different enough to feel new and fresh. With this novel she also cements her talents as a writer of fascinating female leads who are tragically flawed yet sympathetic heroines, and Hester Why is a fine example of how multi-faceted her lead characters are. Threaded through her chapters is a sad the tale of how she came to leave her last employer, landing her in the difficult situation she finds herself now. Obviously I won’t be revealing any of the details, but if your instincts are warning you to prepare for some awful, reprehensible things, I recommend you heed them. Readers do get a sense that Hester can’t fully be trusted, though one also recognizes her desire to help those in need as genuine and sincere. Like so many of Purcell’s other characters, Hester is a deep and complicated puzzle.
Then there’s Louise, whose storyline takes place at Morvoren House decades before Hester makes her arrival. Later, we are able to identify Louise as the elderly Miss Pinecroft whom Hester has been hired to care for, but the infirm old woman was actually quite formidable in her youth. Unfortunately though, I think her chapters came in a little too late, causing me to resent them a little for interrupting the flow of Hester’s story, especially when her past indiscretions were just starting to come to light. Eventually, Louise’s chapters became more engaging, and though I still never felt quite as connected to them as I did with Hester’s, I liked the paranoid superstitious and mythological angle they brought to the book. Speaking of which, one thing I’ve come to love about Purcell’s work is her ability to tease just the right amount of ambiguity to make you wonder at whether or not there are supernatural elements at work. Legends of the fae have persisted for generations at Morvoren House, but it is up to the reader to decide if there’s truth to them, or if they are merely figments of the imagination.
Overall, The House of Whispers was a great book. The last chapter may have been a bit rushed, perhaps, but the conclusion was appropriately dark and unnerving. As well, while it may lack the impact of some of Laura Purcell’s previous novels, this one still kept me up late at night thinking about the story’s questions and the ending’s repercussions. If you’re interested in trying the author’s work, I would recommend The Poison Thread (AKA The Corset), The Silent Companions, and The House of Whispers in that order, but to be honest, you really can’t go wrong with any of them, especially if you enjoy Gothic horror. I can’t wait to see what Purcell writes next.