Thoughtful and elegant debut novel makes Johanna Lane one to watch

Dulough, the Black Lake property, from which this novel takes its name, is a fictional rundown estate on the exposed northwest coast of Ireland that has been in the Campbell family for generations and is currently owned by John Campbell who lives in the house with his Dublin-born wife Marianne and their two children, Kate and Philip.

John’s family acquired Dulough when it was bought by his grandfather, Philip the first who developed the house with a certain austerity borne of his Presbyterian upbringing. Philip’s austere castle contrasts with the simple, evocative hut built by his great grandson and namesake on a remote island off the estate where the family’s graves are located.

If John and his family are the central characters in this novel, the castle and Philip’s hut are silent characters binding generations and relationships and perhaps outlasting all.

On Dulough’s third floor is a locked ballroom, supposedly left unfinished by the first Philip, but actually almost complete, its end wall beautifully decorated with a trompe l’oeil painting by the artist Geoffrey Rowe. The painting uses realistic imagery to create an illusion of the entire estate where everything looks as if it could move at any moment. When Kate touches the lake in this painting, her hand comes away blue as if the water were real and yet it is not the painting but rather the trompe l’oeil perspectives of the main characters that intrigue the reader in this short novel.

With the estate in financial trouble John has decided to enter a pact with the Irish government, opening the house to the public and moving himself and his family to a cottage on the estate. His decision and the subsequent loss of the house affect the family deeply — particularly Marianne and Philip — and when a tragic accident occurs its impact merges with the loss of to place additional strain on family relationships.

Black Lake begins slowly but as the story unfolds through the voices of John, Marianne and Philip the reader is increasingly drawn in. Philip is perhaps the most fully realised character and depicted to give a bittersweet insight into childhood.

Lane writes beautifully and tells a moving story and multi-layered story. This is her debut novel — perhaps not perfect, but thoughtful and elegant — and marks her as a name to watch for in future.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane is published by Little Brown & Co, a division of the Hachette Book Group. A free ARC was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.


Compelling and delightful ghost story from Stephanie Elmas

It had been long time since I last read a ghost story when Stephanie Elmas contacted me via to ask if I would review her novel, The Room Beyond — a dark story blending past and present set in a Victorian London mansion. Stephanie explained that it had taken her seven years to write The Room Beyond and that her inspiration was Victorian sensation writing, particularly the popular novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. My interest was piqued enough to check out the details of The Room Beyond and I liked the blurb, which goes as follows:

When Serena begins a new life working for the Hartreve family at 36 Marguerite Avenue she falls in love, not just with its eccentric and alluring inhabitants and their world, but with the house itself. Number 36 is a beautiful Victorian London mansion that has remained in the family for generations. Serena feels that by being here she has escaped the ghosts of her own sad childhood and found a true home, but she soon discovers that behind its gleaming surfaces Marguerite Avenue is plagued by secrets and mystery. Why does such a beautiful tranquil street seem sometimes to shimmer with menace? Is everyone in the family quite who they appear to be? And just what is it that the family is trying to hide from her?

It is 1892. On a hot summer night scented with jasmine, Miranda Whitestone hosts a dinner party at 34 Marguerite Avenue. Watching helplessly as her husband is seduced by her glamorous neighbour Lucinda Eden, she can have no idea of the consequences the evening will have.

For the history of Marguerite Avenue is more chilling than Serena could have imagined, and the fates of two women – the beautiful renegade Lucinda and the ‘good wife’ Miranda – will reach out from the past to cast a shadow over Serena’s own future.

The Room Beyond is a thriller that delves beneath the romance and grandeur of a London house and finds a family haunted by the legacy of past wrongdoings. As the suspense grows and the fog thickens, will Serena be able to give up all that she has come to love? Will she ever escape?

There are a lot of good things to say about this novel. Mood and character are both very strong and sustained throughout. The main character, Serena, is likable and the more she learns about her employer’s house and its past the more mysterious and thrilling the plot becomes. As a romantic ghost story, The Room Beyond really works. Elmas conjures a mysterious and compelling world that captures attention from first to last. Like any novel, The Room Beyond has some flaws — such as too much reliance on letters at certain points in the plot, for example — but this is easily forgiven in a thrilling and well written page turner that keeps you guessing to the very end.

The Room Beyond by Stephanie Elmas is available from Amazon. [Disclosure: An advance review copy was provided via Netgalley]