The aftermath of A Century of Books definitely seems to be a sudden dash towards 21st century books, particularly those I’ve had on hold for a while. And few books have hovered more determinedly around my consciousness than Linda Gillard’s House of Silence (2011). I’d read her first three novels, and enjoyed them all – one to this-is-incredibly-I-love-it standards. Although I’ve never met Linda Gillard, we used to be in the same book discussion list, and we’re friends on Facebook, so I’m putting this kind gift in Reading Presently. Them’s my rules. And it’s not even the first time she’s given me a copy of the book.
As many of you will know, Linda Gillard is a runaway Kindle bestseller – we’re talking 30,000 copies of House of Silence here, let alone her other Kindle titles – and has a devoted audience around the world. And then, lolloping up behind them, wearing too many belts and clearly thinking the calculator in his hand is a mobile phone, comes me. I don’t have a Kindle, or any of the other-ereaders-are-available. I don’t want one even a tiny bit. The only advantage they have, in fact – and this has quite genuinely appeared on my mental pros/cons list – is access to Linda Gillard’s novels.
Yes, yes, I know. Kindle-for-PC. I downloaded it; Linda kindly gave me a download of House of Silence. I tried to read it. I read the first page every now and then… and got no further. It was like standing outside a bank vault and not having the combination – because, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to read an e-book. It took me months to read the one my good friend had written, which even thanked me in it.
And then – praise be! – Linda published it as a POD paperback, and sent me a review copy of that. Huzzah! I read it, and, dear reader, it was good. Which is just as well, after all that.
(Incidentally, isn’t the cover gorgeous? Unlike most self-published authors, Linda Gillard goes the extra mile with design and aesthetic, paying a designer for this beautiful look. What a shame that easily her best novel, A Lifetime Burning, should also have easily her worst cover… but the new cover for the Kindle edition is beautiful.)
House of Silence has been advertised as Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm – both traits I could identify, and which can definitely be no bad thing – but, more than that, it felt reliably Gillard to me. In terms of period, event, and even genre Linda is versatile – but certain ingredients stand out as characteristic. The most dominant of these is the feel of the book and the characters, vague as that sounds – with Linda Gillard’s novels, you know you’re going to get strong emotions and passionate people, trammeled by everyday experience, but refusing to lie entirely dormant…
Guinevere (known as Gwen) works alongside actors, in the wardrobe department. Already, I’m sold – you might know how I love books which feature actors, and Gillard uses Gwen’s knowledge of fabrics to ingenious effect as the novel progresses. It is in this role that she first meets Alfie, who is having some issues with his breeches… one thing leads to another, and they end up dating. Which, in turn, leads to her spending Christmas with him and his family, at beautiful old Creake Hall in Norfolk. He’s a little reluctant for her to join him, but eventually is persuaded.
And what a group of eccentrics they find! Chief amongst them – although appearing very little on the scene – is Alfie’s mother Rae. Her mind is wandering, and her grasp of time and people is never strong, but she is still regularly producing her series of children’s books about Tom Dickon Harry. This little chap has made her famous – and is based on Alfie himself, who (in turn) rose to notoriety after appearing in a documentary about the books when he was eighteen. The irony is, Alfie explains, that he actually grew up with his father, who divorced Rae – and now he only sees his sister and half-sisters once a year, at Christmas.
Those sisters include loveable, scatty Hattie – who is forever making quilts, and babbling away without any real sense of boundaries. Viv is less open, but still welcomes Gwen into the family. Throw in two visiting sisters, in varying states of life-collapse, and things are bound to be interesting. And Creake Hall is a wonderful setting. Who doesn’t love an Elizabethan manor for a mysterious, slightly unsettling novel? What makes it most unsettling is that the reader shares with Gwen the feeling that Alfie isn’t telling us everything… why was he so reluctant for her to stay? What secrets does he hide? What secrets are hidden by the house of silence?
Gwen is rather younger than Linda Gillard’s previous heroines – she is in her mid-twenties, in fact. At no point does she come across as that young, though – which I thought might be a failing on Gillard’s part, until I got to the part where she asked Marek to guess her age:
“Older than you look. Younger than you sound.”
One of the main aspects of Gwen’s personality is that she has had to be old before her years. I suppose that’s what happens when you lose your entire family during adolescence – to drugs, alcohol, and AIDS – including finding your mother, dead, on Christmas. Yup, Gwen has had it tough.
Oh, and Marek, you ask? He is the gardener, known as Tyler to everyone (because every gardener has been known as that) and is warm, a good listener – he used to be a psychiatrist – and generally a safe place for Gwen to retreat. He’s also (I quote Lyn’s review) ‘gorgeous, sexy, and irresistible.’ I have mental blocks for big age gaps with fictional couples – even Emma and Mr. Knightley is a combination which makes me wince a bit – so I’ll sidestep any potential entanglements here, and leave those quandaries to your imagination. I will say that Marek reminds me a lot of Gavin from Gillard’s Emotional Geology, that he lives in a windmill (far from the only thing which reminded me of Jonathan Creek), and plays the cello – which led me in the direction of this beautiful piece. It’s Rachmaninov’s Sonata in G Minor, Opus 17 No.3, Andante. (Sorry, I have no idea how one is supposed to phrase the titles to music.)
I refuse to give any more of the plot away. I’ve left it all deliberately vague, because it’s the sort of novel where the plot does matter. One of the reasons it reminded me of an episode of Jonathan Creek, in the best possible way, is that you’re desperate to find out what happens – and twist upon twist come, so that everything is plausible but unguessable. The ‘reveals’ are entirely consistent with people’s behaviour throughout the novel; character is never sacrificed to plot – indeed, the explanation of what has happened is also an explanation of why the members of this family are the way they are.
It’s all beautifully, addictively done. I stayed up far later than I should, devouring the second half of the novel. I was unsure, in the beginning, whether it would match up to the compulsive quality of Gillard’s other novels, and the action doesn’t quite kick into gear until we’ve arrived at Creake Hall – but, after that, hold onto your hats. It is a mark of Linda Gillard’s talent that her novels are both versatile and identifiable – no matter what genre she turns her hand to (and I believe her next was a paranormal romance), I would be able to recognise a Gillard at a hundred paces. And, although she may be one of the new wave of successful Kindle authors, thank Heaven she’s found a way for the Kindless to enjoy the dizzying, thoughtful extravaganza that is House of Silence.
Others who got Stuck in this Book:
“House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter.” – Lyn, I Prefer Reading
“This is a book in which it is so easy to lose yourself, at once emotional and mysterious.” – Margaret, Books Please
“The book has romance, bubbling away underneath, it deals with mental health issues so effectively and considerately that you actually do not realise until reflecting back on the book.” – Jo, The Book Jotter