Sunday, May 08, 2016


The US publication of Stephanie Lam's debut novel, a modern-day Gothic set on the coast of England, is a perfect excuse to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea (or cocoa) and slip into another world -- one where mystery, desire, and suspense mingle, enhanced by startling moments of joy and discovery.

Like the instant of revelation of a flash of lightning, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT CASTAWAY HOUSE opens through the eyes of a small girl in a dirty dress, overwhelmed with longing for the grand house up above the cliffs of the British seacoast. But the storm quickly moves forward, placing us at the dark and very grubby entrance to the once-grand home as of 1965, as 18-year-old Rosie Churchill struggles to find rent for her first home away from home ... as a boarder in this peculiar rooming house. She's not that far away geographically from the home where she grew up, and her mother keeps trying to reach her by phone. But Rosie's got her reasons for running away.

Quite a few chapters will pass in this satisfyingly chunky book (500 pages!), with its pulsing narrative that flips madly from 1965 to 1924 and back again, before Rosie gets specific about those reasons. The damage to this teen, though, opens her to a number of compassionate actions toward the old tramp arriving at Castaway House, insisting he's stayed there before.

Twists of romance, friendship, and the strangely dark threat of a "dishy" man with a white Jaguar, leaving her unwanted messages and gifts, keep the plot stormy and Rosie's life precarious. In some ways it's a relief, then, for her to try to take care of Dockie the tramp, and to press for details of the artist who lived in the house a generation earlier. This artist, Robert Carver, is the other set of eyes -- and stories -- that Lam provides, with his 1924 visit to the home of his school friend Alec. Robert can fake for the butler that he's used to hot and cold running water as the grand home provide. But the emotionally charged atmosphere between his friend Alec and Alec's new wife throws him completely off track:
Alec glanced towards the door, and then whispered in my ear, 'She hates me because I've seen through her.'

I turned to him. 'What on earth do you mean?'

'Shh.' He looked at the open door, and then, loudly, 'Let's go out. I've something to show you.'

'Show me?' I asked, heavy with food and wine and not particularly willing to leave the house. 'Is is important?'

He squeezed my hand. 'Life-threatening,' he growled.
Rosie's secrets, Robert's secrets -- and it's Castaway House (and the tramp Dockie) who will tie them together.

Shelve this one next to Laurie R. King's dark British exhumations of the Sherlock Holmes "continuation" or the archaeological mysteries of fellow Brit Elly Griffiths; there's a tang of English despair that also echoes into the Charles Todd series. And underneath, of course, the dire precedent of Jane Eyre. Storm, grand house, secrets -- oh yes, leave room on that bookshelf. This is Stephanie Lam's debut, and it's clear she'll have more good mysteries to follow. Website here; the book is published by Penguin and distributed via Trafalgar Square Publishing.

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