Malorie 1962 – escaping London and an unfaithful husband, Malorie has rented a dilapidated house on a Norfolk marsh. The house was in a photograph that Malorie’s mother gave her – at the behest of her father. It is just a few days before Christmas and Malorie wants to provide her daughter Franny with a ‘family Christmas’. When they arrive, it is cold, damp, and very bleak. Ill-prepared, Malorie at first has no food provisions or fuel for heat. The old house feels as desolate as Malorie’s thoughts. The locals view the house with suspicion and superstition. They tell Malorie that “people have died there…”
Franny 1962 – a quiet and sullen eight year-old girl who seems to not have any friends, other than her little dog which she dotes upon. She seems taciturn and judgemental toward her mother – perhaps with good reason.
Rosemary 1931 – lives with her father and various household help at the Marsh House. Her father says her mother is dead, but Rosemary suspects this might not be so. They call her the ‘Marsh Girl’ because she spends her days roaming in the marsh and collecting treasures she finds there. When not outdoors, she avidly reads the mystery novels of Agatha Christie. Rosemary is a wild and solitary girl of fifteen years when a wealthy and influential family named Lafferty move into the manor house in the nearby village. Rosemary befriends the teenage son and daughter of the big house. 1962 – Malorie discovers journals in the attic of the Marsh House which were written by a former resident of the house, Rosemary. They are accompanied by a ‘mug shot’ of Rosemary, and they were written from her prison cell in Holloway Prison.
For most of the novel the reader wonders…. What did Rosemary do to have caused her to be incarcerated? We are drip-fed Rosemary’s history via her journal entries.
Oftentimes books are described as ‘atmospheric’, yet some are more deserving of the adjective than others. “The Marsh House” oozed atmosphere. I could feel the damp and the cold. I could hear the skitterings of the resident rodents… smell the salty tang of the sea.
The dual time-lines worked efficiently here with the older timeline in the form of journal entries written by Rosemary. This made the shift from one timeline to another very easy to follow.
The book was permeated with a feeling of creepy melancholy. Malorie especially was a deeply depressed woman who was struggling in various aspects of her life. She had difficulty bonding with her daughter and feels she has failed in her role of mother. Also, her husband was unfaithful and both her parents have recently died.
Rosemary was a pitiable character. Lonely, even in her marriage, she felt unloved and alone. Her story also spoke to the gender inequality of her time.
The character of Janey, the old woman who lived across the lane from The Marsh House was unique. She was a midwife, a ‘healer’, with a witch-like manner. She lent the narrative its elements of the supernatural and was the thread that bound the two timelines.
There were some practical aspects of the novel that I personally felt were a bit off. There were several mentions of the light from the candles on the Christmas tree. They were left burning when Malorie was not in the room, and in one instance not even in the house. This would not have been done in real life as it would have presented a serious fire hazard – especially in such a remote location. Also, when Malorie and Franny got in the car to head back to London they left the Christmas tree standing in the house. She had cooked a huge turkey for Christmas, but there was not mention of them eating it after that day. I thought that peculiar… Little things like this pester me. I know, I know, it’s fiction… but still…
The story itself was quite an enjoyable read, despite my few quibbles. It spoke to the age old conundrum of mothers and daughters and the damage that family secrets can impose. It alluded to historical topics such as the British Facist Blackshirts in the 1930s, and the old-time folk healers of times past who were often viewed with superstition.
Were the people Malorie saw ghosts? flights of fancy? or apparitions brought about by the Luminal drug she was taking? You be the judge…
I can confidently recommend this novel to those who enjoy discovering family secrets and like a good ghost story. It reminded be somewhat of the work of Laura Purcell. This is my first read by this author, but I would avidly read another of her works.I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Head of Zeus (via Kathryn Colwell) – for my own reading enjoyment and the writing of this review.
ISBN: 9781838934651 – ISBN: 9781838934644 – 352 pages
Zoë Somerville is a writer and English teacher. Born and raised in Norfolk, England, she has lived all over the world – Japan, France, Washington – and now lives in Bath with her family. Her debut novel, The Night of the Flood, was inspired by the devastating North Sea flood of the 1950s and is also published by Head of Zeus.
Zoë states in the afterword of “Marsh House” that the novel was partly inspired by the children’s book “When Marnie Was There” by Joan G. Robinson.