The Blurb On The Back:
Governess Alice Miller loves Winterbourne the moment she sees it towering over the wild Cornish cliffs. The house promises refuge from her past – and her charges, motherless twins Constance and Edmund, are angelic.
Adopted at birth, Rachel’s roots are a mystery. So, when a letter brings news of the death of an unknown relative, Rachel travels to Cornwall, vowing to uncover her family’s secrets.
With each new arrival, something in Winterbourne stirs. It’s hiding in the paintings. It’s sitting on the stairs. It’s waiting in a mirror, behind a locked door …
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s 1947. Alice Miller is bored working as a secretary in a solicitor’s firm so when she sees an advert for a job as a governess in a family home in Cornwall she believes it’s her chance to escape. Despite her lack of teaching experience she is offered the job as the previous governess has left on short notice. Winterbourne Hall is an imposing gothic house fallen on hard times as its owners – the de Grays – lack the funds to maintain it. Nevertheless, Alice finds herself drawn both to the house and its owner, Captain Jonathan de Gray – a pilot whose heroism in World War II left him with horrific burns on half of his body – and she quickly becomes devoted to her charges, 8-year-old twins Edmund and Constance – angelic, blonde-haired children with a taste for mischief. But the longer Alice stays there, the more wrong things seem to be: just why did the previous governess leave so suddenly, what happened to the Captain’s wife and why does the painting in her room seem to constantly change before her eyes?
In 2018 Rachel Wright is the successful owner of a New York art gallery but while she enjoys her life – and her no-strings-attached affair with wealthy financier Aaron Grewal – she’s always wanted to know more about her past, given that she was adopted as a child from England by a couple who took her to America. So when she gets a letter from a London solicitor’s firm, telling her that she has inherited Winterbourne Hall from her aunt, Constance de Grey, she sees her chance to find the answers she so desperately needs. She finds Winterbourne in a state of neglect, filled with rubbish and detritus and badly in need of an update to the 21stcentury but even as she begins to find answers in her aunt’s journals, she can’t help but feel that there’s something wrong in the house – an oppressive presence that doesn’t want her there – and then there’s the painting in her room that seems to constantly change before her eyes …
Rebecca James’s gothic horror novel has some tense scenes and nicely nods at THE TURNING OF THE SCREW but while I enjoyed the 1947 storyline with Alice’s increasingly fragile mental state, the 2018 love triangle was a little clumsy, the central curse storyline never really convinced me and there were too many unanswered questions about the twins while the twist ending didn’t ring true given that Rachel knew what the curse was attached to.
I really enjoyed the 1947 storyline within the novel. James gives Alice a convincing first person voice, which really puts the reader in her shoes as she slowly begins to psychologically unravel, and it adds a huge amount of tension as James sets up the central mysteries of the house and gradually reveals the answers. Particularly good is the way she handles the supernatural elements – notably the painting in Alice’s room with the small changes in detail that make her question what she’s seeing and adds to the overall sense of wrongness while making you wonder if it’s something that’s really happening or just something within Alice’s mind. This is all added to by the hints of a dark secret in Alice’s background, which James slowly teases out (the reveal of which makes you realise just why Alice is so psychologically fragile) and then in the 2018 storyline, you discover the sad outcome to the story, which makes you feel hugely sympathetic to her.
I also enjoyed the relationship Alice has with the twins who are by turns angelic and malign such that you are never quite sure of whether they are deliberately manipulating her and, if so, why. There are some answers in the 2018 storyline with Rachel uncovering Constance’s journals but I did wish that James had expanded on this as it still leaves unanswered questions as to the extent to which the twins were part of the curse and the extent to which they perhaps used it for their own benefit (although I accept that some readers may prefer the ambiguity).
For me the 2018 storyline suffered in contrast, in part because there’s an element of the poor-little-rich-girl about Rachel – a hugely successful woman who’s only real concern is that she wants to know more about the mother who abandoned her. There’s a degree of mirroring between Rachel’s storyline and Alice’s (both women have endured heartache) that neatly helps bring them together but Rachel is saddled with a love triangle storyline that pitches her between the wealth-obsessed Aaron and honest but gruff neighbouring farmer, Jack, in a way such that the resolution is never in doubt. This is particularly emphasised in the rather soap-opera ending that utterly failed to convince me because it’s so ridiculous and which is followed by a postscript twist on the curse which left me utterly unconvinced given the discoveries that Rachel had made earlier.
This is a shame because there is some great suspense in this novel and some generally sinister moments such that while this book ultimately didn’t work for me, I would nonetheless check out James’s other work.
THE WOMAN IN THE MIRROR was released in the United Kingdom on 14thJune 2018. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.