Katherine Howe’s impressive debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was an enjoyable thought-provoking examination of the nature of witchcraft and mother/daughter relationships. She skilfully used the long shadow of the Salem Witch Trials in a fresh twist that had me pondering some of the issues she raised long after I finished the book. So, the questions has to be – does her new novel live up to this high standard?
1915, Boston. Sybil Allston is a young woman poised on the cusp of a tumultuous new century. But she’s living a life of quiet desperation with her father and wastrel brother in an elegant town house in the city’s plushest neighbourhood. Though her days are rich in creature comforts, she is still reeling from the loss of her mother and sister on the Titanic, which sank three years earlier.
Against this backdrop of Boston on the brink of change flash intimate moments of Sybil’s mother and sister on their final lavish evening on the Titanic, hours before the collision that would destroy the ship and claim their lives – lives revisited through the crystal ball of a medium.
I’ve skipped a chunk of the blurb that reveals too much of the plot – this finely crafted historical exploration of some tricky subjects deserves to be read without any spoilers taking the edge off your enjoyment. Howe is adept at using difficult periods in our past to tease out some contemporary problems – and the subject of drug addiction seems somehow more shocking when set against long dresses and Edwardian manners. She also looks at spiritualism, which enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity during and after the Great War, when so many were bereaved without proper closure with their young men buried in the mud of Flanders’ fields.
Once more, Howe’s apparently gentle style is deceptive – the comforting glow of the past is nothing of the sort. Sybil’s angry guilt-ridden grief traps her just as thoroughly as the corseted expectations that dismiss her as a spinster, fated to run her father’s home and nurse him in his declining years. As for communicating with her mother, or stop her brother from his self-destructive behaviour – how can she prevail?
The answer Howe provides had my jaw dropping. She plays with our expectations and then flips them round, so that someone we had considered as one type, in actual fact was quite different. So, fascinating as Sybil is, she isn’t the character that ultimately snagged my attention in this layered story. It is the self-made Captain Allston whose compelling story slowly unfolds throughout the book – and makes his indifference to the more staid Bostonian customs completely believable.
In fact, there was only one anachronism that initially graunched – as first class female passengers, Helen Allston and her beautiful young daughter would have been almost guaranteed to have seats in the few available lifeboats. But as Howe herself confessed that this was a liberty she took with the historical facts in the Appendix, then she gets a pass on that one. This is, after all, fiction. And with a book that so beautifully creates the febrile atmosphere of that difficult time – if Howe knowingly tweaks the facts to suit her purposes, that’s fair enough. Particularly as she reckoned her readership was sharp enough to call her on it. That is a large part of the joy of this book – Howe’s intelligence shines through this atmospheric tale, better still, her writing assumes her readers will keep up.
So, to answer my original question – in case you hadn’t already guessed – the answer is a resounding yes. The House of Velvet and Glass is a worthy successor to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. But don’t take my word for it – go out and get hold of a copy. You’ll thank me if you do.