Published: 31st October 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Injury detail, allusions to rape, child/baby death, grief
This was my first buddy read of the year with Kriti, and this book gave us so much to talk about! After my review I shall include a few sections from our discussion (no spoilers), and in my next post I am going to be sharing a Q&A that we did with the author, Anita Frank.
Reeling from the death of her fiancé, Stella Marcham welcomes the opportunity to stay with her pregnant sister, Madeleine, at her imposing country mansion, Greyswick – but she arrives to discover a house of unease and her sister gripped by fear and suspicion.
Before long, strange incidents begin to trouble Stella – sobbing in the night, little footsteps on the stairs – and as events escalate, she finds herself drawn to the tragic history of the house.
Aided by a wounded war veteran, Stella sets about uncovering Greyswick’s dark and terrible secrets – secrets the dead whisper from the other side…
This is a delightfully haunting book in which atmosphere and intrigue was never in short supply. With beautiful writing and a cast of brilliantly developed characters who exude mystery and complexity, it contains a multi-layered plot that makes for a riveting read from start to finish, complete with the presence of more than a hint of the paranormal.
A vivid and compelling historical fiction that occasionally encroaches into the realm of horror, it also uses the First World War time period to highlight the topics of loss and grief, but also brings attitudes of the time towards women and mental health into sharp focus in a highly articulate way. Together with a neat spin on the traditional country house setting and the utter intensity of the plot, that ensures this story always keeps you thinking in one way or another.
It is 1917 and Stella Marcham is struggling to come to terms with the death of her fiancé Gerald on the battlefield, almost taking her own life but for the last-minute intervention of Annie Burrows, a young maid. After becoming fed up with her mental state being called into question by the family doctor, she is visited by her brother-in-law Hector, who invites Stella to his home, Greyswick, to provide support for her pregnant sister Madeleine.
Stella arrives at Greyswick with the mysterious Annie in tow, and finds that her sister has become anxious and disturbed by a number of unusual, inexplicable incidents since she began living at the house. Madeleine thinks the place is haunted, much to the disbelief of Stella and the other residents – Lady Brightwell, her amiable companion Miss Scott, and creepy housekeeper Mrs Henge.
However, when Stella also experiences ghostly encounters, she is greeted with similar ridicule by the rest of the household. Hector then returns accompanied by Tristan Sheers, a man who claims to specialise in disproving supernatural theories and who seems to have an explanation for everything. But the incidents continue to occur and as Stella’s suspicions grow, she and Annie uncover a shocking and sinister family history.
The plot sometimes gets a little bit dark and tragic, but at the same time it is unmistakably thrilling and it kept me on the edge of my seat. There is a lot going on with all the themes and backstory, and the very intricate mystery at play, but never at any stage did that feel overwhelming, which is testament to the author. The story also gradually gathers pace, building up to a highly dramatic ending.
Everything is written in the first person and told entirely from Stella’s point of view, but the other main protagonists are developed in such a way that their differing personalities give the reader more of a multi-dimensional experience of the book. The narrative also brings the most out of the fact that this is a ghost story, providing some genuinely frightful moments.
Stella is an excellent narrator, very formal and well-spoken but with heaps of determination and an extremely sharp mind. She is in a bad place at the beginning and the sense of loss she feels is ever present as we see occasional flashbacks to a happier time when Gerald was alive, but the direction she takes as a character is an empowering one.
There are times – especially early on – when Stella does display flaws and is a bit harsh towards others, but she always has the very best intentions and so I was totally rooting for her. However, my favourite character was Annie. She is perceptive and endlessly fascinating, written in a way that makes you wonder if you are being given the full picture, though ultimately she is kind-hearted and misunderstood.
All of the other characters brought so much to the story. Lady Brightwell was very complex, coming across as haughty and bad tempered, but there were many layers lying beneath the surface. Right from the moment Miss Scott was introduced, there was the sense that there was more to be found beyond her bright exterior, while it was good to see Madeleine eventually find her voice.
Mrs Henge was something of an ice queen, often giving the impression that she can reduce the temperature of a room by several degrees immediately upon entering. She is often described as standing in the shadows almost unnoticed, and at these moments it seemed evident that the author chose her words very deliberately. Meanwhile, another memorable character was Mr Sheers, who starts off as something of a curiosity but ends up becoming quite likeable.
As a spooky setting, Greyswick hits all the right notes. It is realised in great detail and is made to feel ominous as soon as Stella arrives, with its peculiar frontage and garish furnishings. Inside the atmosphere is dark and unwelcoming, not least at the top landing with the steep staircase that nobody has ascended for many years. When accompanied by the ghostly activity, it is enough to send a shiver down the spine.
One of the most distinguishing features of the book is its writing style, which is eloquent and flowery and sometimes poetic, using all sorts of impressive vocabulary. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it and it left me captivated. The only criticism I have was that once or twice the dialogue just went a little bit over the top.
As the ending approached it was difficult to foresee what was going to happen, but it was clear that there was a lot to be resolved. It turned out to be full of twists and revelations, and although in my opinion there was probably one twist too many, it still made for a gripping read. Only one real mystery remained beyond the last page, and it feels like the author left that one open to interpretation.
Overall, there are multiple aspects that make this a fantastic book. The plot is full of depth and provides so much in the way of atmosphere and suspense, with a mystery involving such interesting characters. There may be the odd unsettling moment, but in my mind, as both a historical fiction and a ghost story, it can only be considered as a fairly resounding success.
A lot of the discussions Kriti and I had contained spoilers, so here are the bits that didn’t!
Before we started the book
Stephen: When I first read the synopsis of this book (in addition to seeing its beautiful cover!), I was instantly drawn towards it. There is just something I love about historical fiction novels featuring this kind of setting; they always seem to have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and intrigue. I cannot wait to find out what secrets are contained at Greyswick and if it is as haunted as it sounds! What makes you excited about this book, Kriti?
Kriti: I don’t read many ghost stories and the setting of this book reminded me a little bit of The Murmur of Bees which was a beautiful book we read together. I am also taking part in a Horror a Month challenge (and though this book will not count towards the prompts for January or February), I am excited to do more than required.
End of chapter 10
SD: Stella has clearly been through a very difficult time with the deaths of Lydia (her sister) and Gerald, and the opening chapters were quite hard-hitting as we saw her struggle to deal with her grief. It also gave a little historical context in terms of how mental health and suicidal thoughts were viewed with little sympathy in the past. It was extremely significant to me also that Annie was the one who saved her from drowning. What have you made of this powerful storyline, Kriti?
KK: I noticed the apathy towards grief as well, especially when it comes to someone who wasn’t officially family yet. It is ok for Stella’s mom to grieve as she does but everyone wants Stella to be on her feet right away. This view of mental health is disappointing, though not surprising. I am glad Stella has her sister to turn to and help give her purpose. I think Lydia’s death has some more secrets that will be revealed in due time since it deeply affected Stella in ways we can’t quite process yet and I am curious to learn more about it.
A lot of detail has been put into the setting. The descriptions of the house, the darkness it holds, the lack of natural light, the oppressive atmosphere, the closed off rooms. A lot of work and research has gone into setting up the house and I appreciate that. The more concretely we can visualize the setting, the more immersive the story can be, and potentially more jumpy the ghost scenes. Haha.
SD: I love a book with a great setting, where it is vivid and atmospheric, and feels like a character in itself. So for that reading I really appreciate the setting, and like you say it makes the story more immersive.
End of chapter 20
SD: We have seen hints towards feminism in this book, and that was highlighted again with Stella’s words at the end of chapter 20. I think this is a really interesting theme and I am looking forward to seeing it explored more, especially given that it’s set in 1917. What are your thoughts on this, Kriti?
KK: I am enjoying learning more about the treatment of women, and as we discussed earlier the realness of their grief, through this book. It is a sad truth but, at the same time, like we learned through The Invention of Wings, was very much the reality. Stella is a headstrong and independent woman. She has seen war and had her losses so she knows what she is doing.
End of chapter 30
KK: Stella continues to be hostile to certain people in these set of chapters. I understand why, but I’d not realized until that happened how much hurt is in her. Dealing with loss is a tough journey and in her case, it seems to me a ball of anger. She has given up on God, probably mad at the misfortune that has happened to her. In spite of all this, I still really like her – she is fearless and always there for her sister. I am also glad to see that she is being more thoughtful towards Annie now. What were your thoughts about Stella in these chapters?
SD: I really like Stella as well. She is very spirited and intelligent, a strong female character who knows her own mind and is not prepared to allow others to undermine her. It is definitely good to see her being more sensitive with Annie, and the relationship between them is so key to this book. But yes, it is clear that she has lost faith in the world after the loss of Gerald and it is always there on her mind.
End of book
KK: The last 15 chapters of The Lost Ones went fast for me. The more I learned about the household, its secrets and their consequences, the less I was sure how good an idea it was in its entirety to go digging. What are your thoughts about the timing and reveal of the big secrets, Stephen?
SD: I agree that the pace of the story increased considerably in the last 15 chapters and there were a lot of secrets uncovered. I think Stella wanted to find out the truth for the sake of her sister’s wellbeing, but also for justice and possibly even for the rest of the household’s sake.
Mr Sheers definitely grew on me a lot as the story progressed. Stella was an excellent narrator who I found myself really rooting for, but my favourite character of all was Annie. I loved her development. What were your thoughts on these three protagonists, Kriti?
KK: I think the protagonists were chosen well and had roles that only they could have played. Stella’s search for answers and doing something to support her sister, Annie’s uniqueness and Mr Sheers’ scepticism provided a holistic, multidimensional picture of what was happening in the house. I liked how these characters interacted with other characters as well.
What are your overall thoughts on the book, Stephen? Did you enjoy it from start to finish?
SD: Yes! I really enjoyed it. There are so many different elements to this book and they all helped to make it a captivating read for me. I loved the atmosphere of the setting, the writing style, and the fact the characters were all so complex and interesting. The themes it explored were fascinating and done well, such as mental health and historical contexts. It was dark at times and there was perhaps one twist too many towards the end, but I found so much to love about it from a technical point of view. Anita Frank is clearly a very good writer.
What are your overall thoughts, Kriti? I think your thoughts might not be quite as positive as mine, but I hope you still enjoyed it!
KK: I grew to like this book and it was definitely above average. If it hadn’t been a bit crazy towards the end I might have liked it better but overall, I got comfortable with the setting eventually and it has been a lot of fun discussing this book in depth with you – reading along with a friend always makes books better. 🙂
Anita Frank had wanted to be an author for many years and finally realised that ambition when The Lost Ones was released in 2019. She previously studied British and American history at the University of East Anglia, and went on to work in London as a media analyst.
Originally from Shropshire, she now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children. Find out more about Anita in our Q&A in my next post!
I enjoyed this book immensely. I loved the setting, the characters, the writing, and the vast majority of the plot. For that reason, I am excited to see what Anita Frank writes next.