This RITA® Reader Challenge 2013 review was written by Julian Griffith. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements and the Best First Book category.
Sarah Piper's lonely, threadbare existence changes when her temporary agency sends her to assist a ghost hunter. Alistair Gellis-rich, handsome, scarred by World War I, and obsessed with ghosts- has been summoned to investigate the spirit of nineteen-year-old maid Maddy Clare, who is haunting the barn where she committed suicide.
Since Maddy hated men in life, it is Sarah's task to confront her in death. Soon Sarah is caught up in a deperate struggle. For Maddy's ghost is real, she's angry, and she has powers that defy all reason.
Can Sarah and Alistair's assistant, the rough, unsettling Matthew Ryder, discover who Maddy was, whereshe came from, and what is driving her desire for vengeance-before she destroys them all?
And here is Julian's review:
When I signed up to read this book, I saw that it was nominated in the Best First Book and Novel With Strong Romantic Elements categories, and I learned from its blurb that it was a ghost story, but I somehow missed the fact that it was set in 1922. I didn’t learn that until the book arrived at my house! It was a happy surprise, because I’m a fan of historical fiction; I write historical romance myself.
The Haunting of Maddy Clare reminded me strongly of Sarah Waters’ novels, especially Affinity and Little Stranger. The first-person narrative, the protagonist’s restrained voice, and the understated way that she describes terrifying events are very much in that style, and it’s a style I enjoy.
If you’re reading this as a romance, you may be disappointed. There is a romance between the heroine, Sarah Piper, and one of the other characters, and it’s nicely drawn, with Sarah unflinchingly acknowledging her own desire, and with an interesting imbalance between physical and emotional fulfilment before the novel’s resolution. Sarah’s quiet narrative voice as she describes the rough, intense sex she’s having and enjoying makes a very effective contrast. I enjoyed the romantic elements very much, but they weren’t the main focus of the book.
The ghost story aspect also worked well for me. Simone St. James made me believe in the haunting. What’s more, she made me feel it, both in the sensory details and the overwhelming fear Sarah has. There were times when I needed a restoring cup of tea just as Sarah did!
Another part that was skilfully handled was the effects of World War I on the men in the story, both the men who went and the men who stayed behind. I’ve got something of a love-hate relationship with World War I stories, because the period fascinates me, but it usually winds up making me cry. I sniffled a lot through the audiobook of Charlie Cochrane’s Promises Made Under Fire, and let’s not even talk about what a mess I was coming out of War Horse. It’s well done here.
The final thing I’d like to praise is the way Simone St. James depicted the class structures in England between the wars. She captured the nuances in a way that felt as closely-observed as Dorothy L. Sayers or Agatha Christie, who were writing at the time itself. I can get thrown out of a story very easily if the author gets that wrong; it was a pleasure to see it done right.
With all that, why did I give it a B+? A few flaws. First of all, Sarah’s voice was so restrained that I felt like I never got a fleshed-out sense of her character. I would have liked to see what was beyond her near-constant self-effacement, and where she found the depths of feeling that fueled her desire for her partner. In fact, a lot of the novel didn’t feel fleshed out enough. It’s shorter than most of Sarah Waters’ books, and it suffers for it. I wanted more backstory for all of the characters. I’d especially have liked more development for the villain; we barely saw him once before the reveal, and not much more indirectly from his effects on others. It’s probably unrealistic to think that outsiders to a small English village could find out more than that in the few days covered in the novel, but all the backstory was sparse, and it left me feeling like I’d read about half of a book, with the rest of it still sitting on the author’s hard drive.
Still, if my only complaint about a book is that I wanted more of it, that’s an awfully good complaint to have. I’m definitely going to be recommending it to friends who share my tastes, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Simone St. James.