The Shrouded Walls

Susan Howatch is one of my favourite modern authors - in quite a different vein from the family saga novels, which I also enjoy. She has a fairly terse style without too many adjectives, and yet builds up realistic and sympathetic characters.

In this, one of her early 'gothic' novels, she uses - as she often does - a first person narrative to get inside the mind of the main character. This is a 17-year-old girl, who has been orphaned at the start of the book. She has a twin (Alexander) but is clearly the stronger of the two. The book is set in the 18th century, when an impoverished orphaned young lady would almost certainly have to be either a governess or possibly a housekeeper/companion. However fortune smiles on this young lady (her name, according to the blurb on the back, is Marianne - but it's barely mentioned in the book) when a gentleman she has never previously met proposes a marriage of convenience, for the benefit of them both. She accepts, and is then drawn into mysterious surroundings and a worrying puzzle: her new husband's father was murdered some years previously, but it seems that any of the household, including her husband, could have been responsible.

So it's something of a thriller, almost in Mary Stewart's genre although without fast chases or exotic settings. It's also a kind of whodunnit, as Marianne gradually pieces together the clues, talking to various people in the household and putting her thoughts and discoveries on paper as she writes to her brother. Naturally the puzzle is eventually solved, and everything tidied up, but not without a few shocks of the gothic style.

It's quite a good book; towards the end it became gripping as I felt more and more drawn into the story. On the other hand, it doesn't feel really authentically 18th century. The research is fine; I can't fault the daily routine or the way people dressed or travelled. On the other hand, the conversation and general descriptions sound like those of 20th century people: they don't have the older style inflexions or styles of speech that the better historical authors use so readily.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it as a bit of escapism. It's not a long book (under 200 pages) and the gothic horror bits aren't unpleasantly gory. If I weren't a huge fan of the author's Church of England series I doubt if I'd keep this for future reading, but since I have all her other work, it'll stay as part of my collection.

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