Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books. Moors and spiderwebs. Castles too, and wicked stepmothers who force princesses to eat poisoned apples, dark fairies cursing maidens and wizards who turn handsome lords into beasts.
When I first started this novel I was a little bit unsure, but I read the above paragraph and trusted it was the book for me. I have a smidgen of Catalina’s gothic, romantic sensibility about me and this book had all the elements I usually enjoy: a plucky heroine, a suitably wealthy but eccentric family, the possibly hysteric friend/family member who needs rescuing, a crumbling gothic mansion. So far, so usual. Then the first dream sequence happened and I sat straight up in bed, wondering what sort of dark, twisted fairytale I’d let myself in for. From that point on I found it curiously addictive – the sort of ‘still reading at 2am addictive’. By the end, I was awake because I was too scared to sleep!
Noemi Tabouda is dispatched by her uncle to High Place, the estate of the wealthy Doyle family. Virgil Doyle is the new husband of Noemi’s cousin and it is Catalina who has written an alarming letter begging to be rescued from a strange supernatural fate. The letter mentions fantastical happenings, such as people in the walls and a spectral voice speaking to her. Noemi wonders if her cousin needs to see a psychiatrist, because even though Catalina has a flair for the dramatic, she has never sounded so scared. The family know very little about the Doyle’s because Catalina and Virgil’s romance was a bit of a whirlwind. In Noemi’s limited time with him, he seemed very charming and had the dark brooding looks of a Byronic hero. This is a good chance to help Catalina get well, but also get to know the Doyle family a little better.
The author has created a brilliant setting in the Doyle family mansion High Place. It has a strange dual effect on Noemi of being luxurious and comfortable, but almost suffocating and overpowering. The past wealth of the family can be seen in every piece of silver, swish of velvet curtain and the eyes of past Doyle’s following her around the room. Noemi’s room is luxurious but shabby, as if the wealth has started to run out. The wallpaper has a curious pattern, but is also decorated with patches of damp. The bath is deep enough for a good soak but the fixtures and fittings are a little rusty. There are servants, but they are strangely silent and don’t even catch Noemi’s eye. The whole regime of the house seems very regimented to Noemi who is an informal, modern woman. Virgil’s father is definitely head of the house, but his sister Florence is the gatekeeper who makes sure his wishes are carried out. Noemi expected to breeze in and immediately pop in on her cousin, but finds she is barred. Apparently, the family doctor has decided she needs rest and a very quiet atmosphere. Noemi is told her cousin has TB, which has never been mentioned before, and doesn’t really account for the strange things Catalina mentioned in her letter.
Noemi is a great central character to follow through the story. She is sassy, intelligent and very determined to bring a little 20th Century thinking into High Place. I love that she isn’t afraid to ask questions, especially of the men who aren’t used to being held to account by women. This is how the author starts to subvert the gothic /fairytale genre – Catalina is the more ‘traditional’ heroine. Noemi brings in the local doctor to give her a second opinion, befriends the younger cousin Francis and enlists his help in understanding the family. She recognises that’s a lot of women have struggled to live with the Doyle’s regime. Howard had two wives, who were sisters and both died at High Place. A cousin, Ruth, took a shotgun to the family leaving Uncle Howard alive but horribly disfigured. From the village Noemi unearths stories of hundreds of silver miners going missing in the Doyle mines. It seems the family consume people, encapsulated by their horrible emblem of a snake eating its own tail.
The incredible nightmare sequences are vivid and visceral. At first I wasn’t sure which was real: was the regimented, almost Puritan, daily order of High Place the reality, or was it a thin veil of decency obscuring something more deadly and decadent. Just as mould was starting to be visible on the wallpaper, Noemi’s nightmares signal something breaking through, threatening to take over. This underlying force seems to understand the very soul of the person it tries to corrupt. In Noemi’s case her modern attitude to dating and female sexuality is used to draw her in against her will. She is a serial dater, choosing short dalliances where no one can get too close. So her nightmares have a strong sexual element, where Virgil Doyle lulls and seduces her, in her bath or in the middle of the night. She questions herself. Virgil repulses her, but does she desire him? Are these dreams conjured from her own subconscious or is something able to infiltrate her sleep and lure her down the corridors in her nightdress?
The truth of High Place and what happens there, when it is revealed, is truly horrific. There was a scene that literally made me gag! This may be one of those occasions when I truly hope they don’t make the book into a film – I wouldn’t be able to watch it! I felt that the author was playing with the reader and our own push and pull between fascination and revulsion. I found this very reminiscent of Dracula. There was an equally interesting tension around social change. The local miners exploited by the Doyle’s are part of the past, along with the family’s rules and position in society and their adherence to the ‘family doctor’. The new is represented by characters like Noemi and the mentions of her wardrobe full of the new styles and the young local doctor who tries to help Catalina. In the town the Doyle family are seen as weird eccentrics, possibly sinister, but no longer able to command respect as they would have a generation before. Their time is waning and these horrific acts are a fight, both for the family and the entity that lives alongside them. The author subverts the fairy tales Catalina loved in her youth and the original Gothic trope of a damsel in distress, rescued by a man. I truly enjoyed this novel, despite the fact it kept me awake at night worried that mushrooms were coming out of the wallpaper. Now, finally, I’d like to go and get some dreamless sleep.