I have always been drawn to novels set in a different era, particularly those that centre around one household. Kate Riordan’s latest novel, The Shadow Hour was no exception. Set in the majestic Fenix House the story promised a world of secrets and shadows and an extraordinary family history, and it didn’t disappoint.
‘Not all stories should be regarded as a straight line, with the past at a distance and the present close at hand.’
The events of The Shadow Hour take place over a period of forty-four years and the narrative alternates between two generations of women, Harriet Jenner and Grace Fairford. The opening chapters recall the events of 1922 when, encouraged by her grandmother Harriet, Grace applies for a position as a governess at Fenix House. The house was a big part of Harriet’s life, as she herself was a governess there in 1878. It has also been the subject of many stories passed onto Grace over the years. Grace was well aware of the events of her grandmother’s time there, familiar with its inhabitants, its every detail. It soon dawns on Grace that this was Harriet’s plan all along. She was desperate for Grace to follow in her footsteps, but for what purpose, Grace is unsure.
On her arrival at Fenix House, Grace begins to discover discrepancies in her grandmother’s stories. It turns out that the fairy tale like image of the house Harriet had presented was not entirely true. This worked well with the split narrative – Grace’s chapters which are told in first person show Grace discovering the houses secrets for the first time whilst Harriet’s chapters are in third person, her story being retold. My interest was piqued from early on as it became apparent Harriet was an unreliable narrator. Questions were immediately raised on why Harriet lied, and why she left Fenix House so soon. This drives the narrative forward as there is so much to discover, so many hidden secrets waiting to be revealed.
Fenix House is home to a wonderful cast of interesting characters. In 1878, Harriet was governess to Helen, Victoria and Bertie Pembridge. Harriet soon settles in with the children and their father Robert but her relationship with their mother Louisa is far more complicated. Nearly half a century later her granddaughter acts as governess to Lucas but the Pembridge family do not identify her connection to Harriet Jenner, a name that certainly conjures memories amongst the family and their staff. Gradually, a web of secrets and scandal begins to unravel. The novel is full of mystery and I was gripped to the very end. Just as I thought I knew all there was to know about the family, another secret was revealed, another detail emerges. The faded grandeur of Fenix House provides a great backdrop to the story as you never know what secrets are held inside. You are never quite sure what, or who was hiding behind each door. There was also the small matter of what the staff knew, what they might have seen or heard – a stolen glance, a creaking floorboard.
I thought that The Shadow Hour was a wonderful novel. I loved the atmospheric setting and the way the mystery is built up, switching back and forth through time. The story shares similarities with Jane Eyre which is alluded to throughout the novel. However, the characters have fascinating stories and secrets all of their own. When I reached the end I was a little sad to be leaving Fenix House behind. I loved unearthing this family’s story and will certainly be reading more of Kate Riordan’s work.
The Shadow Hour will be published on 25th February 2016 by Penguin. Many thanks to Francesca Russell at Penguin for providing a proof copy for review.