House of Glass by Susan Fletcher review: A gothic ghost story with a very modern heroine

As you probably could tell from this post, I love being a journalist. I love striving to bring readers truth, justice and the best place to have a cappuccino when you’re stuck up a mountain in Nepal (hey, hipsters read too, you know).

But I’d be lying if there weren’t a few selfish reasons behind loving my job – the book cupboard at work.

Yes, we have a book cupboard.

Remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Andi is taken down to the clothes room? That’s what it feels like when I open the doors and stare at all these beautiful creations.

I’ve always loved reading. My earliest memories involve going to the library with my mam and wandering around the shelves, taking home new worlds and adventures that couldn’t be found in the back yard.

It was bliss. I mean, look at this building…

Welbeck Road Lady Stephenson Library Newcastle by Phil Thirkell.jpg

I can still remember the stillness, the quietness; how the dust motes glistened in the sunlight through the huge windows; the musty smell from the books.

The children’s section are the windows at the far right of this photo and the book I desperately want to re-read – A Candle in her Room, by Ruth M Arthur – is in one of the first group of bookcases, slightly to the left. Go behind the case and you’ll find it there, about second row down.

That’s how strong my memories are. So strong, that when I visited the library in the early 2000s, it was like Marty McFly waking up in the new 1985 – I knew the building intimately but it had all changed. Nothing was where I remembered and the beautiful stillness had gone, replaced by noisy playgroups and old people chatting away.

It was horrible. Truly, the end of my childhood.

Now, obviously, I think it’s wonderful that the young and the old were using the facilities and giving them a new life. But for me, the Lady Stephenson Library was a church, hallowed land, and the books within it to be honoured.

At one point in my life, I had so many books they were spread over four houses – my mam’s, my sister’s, the flat in Newcastle I was renting out and the flat in Edinburgh I was renting for myself.

Today, I have five “proper” books, a Calvin & Hobbes anthology and a Peanuts one and several fashion books. Sacrifices have to be made when you move from country to country and my babies were it. They went to Amnesty International’s bookshop in Newcastle, or the equivalent depending where I was, so I can rest easy that I didn’t pay the ultimate price in vain. These are the ones that I couldn’t give up.

And yes, I have have a Kindle. It’s not the same and for proof, I’ll simply link you to this Ted talk instead of ranting. Chip Kidd says this so much better than I ever could:

I like not having lots of things – even books - but only having a few tomes in my life has made me lazy and I’ve been re-reading rather than exploring new works.

Which is why I joined a book club in Canterbury and also raid the book cupboard to force myself away from the usual pot-boiler thrillers that will fill a gap rather than truly satisfy – you know, like when you have McDonalds when you really want is steak and chips.

That’s how I found House of Glass by Susan Fletcher and I’m so glad I did.

This is a fascinating book. It’s set in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War, but leading lady Clara Waterfield is no typical period drama heroine.

She suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bone disease, and because of this she’s super petite and walks with a limp. She’s also been left disfigured by badly healed fractures. To protect Clara from injuries, her mother kept her in a padded room throughout her childhood, meaning Clara has learnt none of the niceties of mixing with people. She’s never been taught how to be polite and instead is so direct it’s taken as rudeness.

Despite this, she’s brave and strong, which is just as well because after her mother dies, Clara ends up working in a haunted house, with a boss so aloof he makes Mr Rochester look like Winnie the Pooh, servants too scared to wander the corridors and a strange knocking at her bedroom door.

As the summer heat intensifies, Clara finds herself drawn into the secrets of the house and its inhabitants, past and present, in true gothic style. It is so atmospheric that I tweeted the author to tell her off because I was too scared to go upstairs.

Halfway through, however, the book changes course and instead of a ghost story, you realise you’re reading a novel about women and the roles men and society place on them. From being cossetted in her padded room, Clara emerges as a 21st century woman with an analytical mind that questions all she is told. She rejects religion, breaks the rules as to what a woman should wear and supports votes for women. She even makes an indecent proposal to the neighbour.

Most importantly, though, she doesn’t let anyone tell her what to think nor what to believe and that leads her to the truth.

Fletcher expertly captures the changing world of the early 1900s and the feeling of uncertainty to what this would mean for women, but it never feels as if she’s talking about a past time. House of Glass could be talking about women today. There is no conventional happy ending, but Clara has a world of possibilities open to her. And who could ask for more?

What should I read next? Let me know your favourite book in the comments below. And don’t forget to give a like and subscribe!

Additional photo: Phil Thirkell (CC by SA 2.0)