Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’.
In Schoolhouse Gothic, Truffin examines late-twentieth-century American literature by authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates taking the form of Gothic narratives where the stones of age-old monasteries and castles are replaced by the concrete of school buildings and where classrooms and gyms function as prisons. Truffin focuses on those texts that express and exacerbate the increasingly uneasy relationship that Americans have with the academy and with the educational system as a whole. According to Truffin, ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the educational system through a Gothic lens with schools reifying old – and often outdated – traditions, and teachers and professors perpetuating an ‘epistemic violence’ that is ‘violence exerted against or through knowledge’ (26). Schools, within this strand of Gothic, provide the setting for race, gender and class inequities, which often result in physical and mental violence against students. Since Gothic is a genre that tends to explore subversive themes, often providing a conflicting view of our culture, it seems almost inevitable that it would turn its gaze to the country’s faltering educational system where high-schools and colleges form the backdrop to gun violence, economic inequalities, and racial and gender discriminations.
Woven throughout Truffin’s narrative are a diverse set of theories, for example, a view of institutional buildings as places designed to control and entrap individuals that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and a concept of ‘epistemic violence’ stems from Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in which power is simultaneously generated by and generator of knowledge). She calls upon eminent contemporary literary theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James A. Berlin to support her assertions about educational institutions, and references recent Gothic scholars such as Chris Baldick and David Punter when defining Gothic. Although her erudition emerges quite clearly, her arguments often seem convoluted and there is almost an excess of critical theories, which are sometimes not developed in full.
Truffin repeatedly refers to the ‘academic objectivity’ that ‘blinds scholars and educators to their own prejudices’ and stresses that academy’s ‘prerogative of definition’ is extremely damaging – above all to the students who are its primary victims: are we to assume that she considers herself exempt?
Her opening chapter begins with a personal account set during Truffin’s senior year of high school, when she first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘grim narrative’(2) in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Truffin credits this song with inspiring her to embark on her inquiry into the nature and representations of ‘shadowy educators; nightmarish schools; and traumatized students’ (2), that is, the schools and teachers that she associated with that particular song. She goes goes on to explore the ‘forbidding schools and menacing teachers’ (3) within the Gothic canon.
In this introductory chapter she provides a brief definition of Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse that serves as the basis of her inquiry into what she defines as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, which is not a genre per se but rather ‘a set of representations that articulates or embodies […] “a structure of feeling”’ (5). One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic is that it is a genre preeminently concerned with the past, yet ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the contemporary Western education system, albeit using traditional Gothic motifs and conventions to do so. Daunting family mansions and old monasteries are replaced by school buildings and college campuses. Within ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ standardized education is a means of control and indoctrination, schools are the backdrop to power inequalities, a place where students are entrapped, oppressed, and transformed into ‘psychopaths, zombies, and machines’ (5).
Truffin considers the teachers, students, and academic institutions within the ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ as correspondents to the Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap. The paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that takes place in ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ is such that students and teachers alike emerge from their school experience ‘so distorted as to become a kind monster […] no one remains unchanged by school, and no one changes for the better’ (27). Truffin uses the remainder of her introduction to establish the structure of her monograph, the texts she will analyse that focus on literature where the school is ‘the loci of the Gothic experiences’ (26), and the way in which she will approach these texts.
In ‘“I’m out of your filing cabinet now”: Adolescent Angst in the Schoolhouse Gothic of Stephen King’ Truffin focuses on four narratives by Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining, Apt Pupil and Rage. Truffin identifies and addresses the similar themes explored within these stories noting that within King’s ‘rather extensive boy of Schoolhouse Gothic’ schools and their teachers are compared to ‘everything from bad parenting to rape, capitalist brainwashing, and monster-making’ (34). The schools and teachers starring in these stories are sources of ‘paranoia, violence and monstrosity’ (34). What emerges from Truffin’s approach to these texts is that the rage experienced by the students in King’s narratives is a reaction to the way that they have been abused, labelled, and misunderstood by their educators. These unequal power relationships will have deadly consequences – as revealed in Truffin’s close-analysis of these stories – as the victimized students turn against their tormentors.
When discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved Truffin makes readers aware that the novel is ‘neither set in a school building nor centrally concerned with the victimizations of students at the hands of their teachers’ arguing however that ‘all of the elements of Schoolhouse Gothic find their way into the novel’ (82). While King ‘explores the effects of subjugation and entrapment on students’, Morrison’s novel considers the ‘subjugating effects of conceptualizing human beings as subject matters’ (82). Truffin details the way in which the character of Sethe, a freed slave, is viewed as ‘less than human–as in fact, an object of study’ (82). Truffin’s analysis centers on the way in which racism and slavery are ‘legitimated and perpetuated–given a (pseudo) scientific sanction’ within Beloved. Truffin views the schoolteacher – who is the primary discipliner of the slaves – as the embodiment of post-Enlightenment scientific racism. Truffin argues that his desire to study the ‘animal’ qualities of his slaves, such as when he measures Sethe’s head, instructing his pupils list her human and animal characteristics, is an ‘epistemic violation of his slaves’. His lectures and writings are accountable for the actions of his students who assault Sethe. Sethe herself is haunted by the schoolteacher’s practices. In this chapter Truffin grimly demonstrates that Beloved’s ‘critique of the history racist oppression in America’ revolves around ‘the horrible power of the academic’ (100) where students are programmed to dissect and discard human subject matter.
In her next chapter Truffin jumps from a 19th-century slave plantation to a college campus in New England during the mid-1970s. Truffin examines Joyce Carol Oates’s Beasts using the same rationale as her previous chapters, referring to the ‘monster, curse and trap’ that constitute her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. Beasts follows Gillian, a student attending a women’s college, who is seduced by her Creative Writing professor Mr Harrow. Mr Harrow pressures Gillian into entering a sexual relationship with himself and his wife, Dorcas. Truffin describes Gillian as being enslaved by this relationship, and alongside her classmates, also implied to be fellow victims of Mr Harrow, becomes increasingly ‘jealous, paranoid, dehumanized and monstrous’ to the point of resembling ‘zombies, cadavers, dogs and […] beasts’ (107). Mr Harrow in turn exploits, humiliates and abuses his victims. Truffin observes the way in which Gillian’s college experience leads her to indulge in self-mutilation and self-flagellation and finally pushes her to kill the professor and his wife, that is, those who made her into a ‘beast’. Truffin highlights the themes and arguments she has touched upon in previous chapters, illustrating the way in which Schoolhouse Gothic narratives expose the inevitable monstrous transformation that students can experience at the hands of their teachers, who are either physically abusive or exercise ‘epistemic violence’ – wielding knowledge as a weapon – against those who are in their care.
Although many sections of Schoolhouse Gothic are highly accessible, to the point of being conversational in style, there are other passages that seem unnecessarily abstruse and fall back on awkward metaphors. The volume would have also benefited from attentive editing since the index contains several errors: the entry for ‘New Criticism’, for example, directs readers to nonexistent pages. Another serious shortcoming in my opinion is the author’s failure to address her role as a scholar and academic in her critique of the academy. Early on she briefly acknowledges the positive effects that the educational system can have but in examining those texts she identifies as being ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, she often seems critical of the academy and educational system themselves rather than critical of the way in which they are within the texts. And while her ‘monster, curse and trap’ allegory gives consistency to her analysis of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ literature this formula can be limiting since it melds together different readings and stories.
Nevertheless Truffin’s Schoolhouse Gothic proposes an interesting study, and her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ gives expression to an overlooked strand of the Gothic.
Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’.
I love Wilkie Collins’ humour, the quirkiness and mannerisms of his characters, and the intricate plots of his novels. No Name focuses on a rather unconventional heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, who in a short amount of time finds herself orphaned and – due to
an idiotic a legality – penniless. Her rightful inheritance lands in the hands of her cruel uncle who refuses to help his nieces. While Nora Vanstone, the older sister, becomes a governess, Magdalen will resort to all sort of tricks and subterfuges to get her inheritance back. Aided by a distant relation, Captain Wragge, a cunning man who prides himself for his transactions in ‘moral agriculture’ aka all sorts of frauds and schemes, and his wife, Mrs Wragge, a gentle soul in the body of a giantess. Magdalen will use her incredible skills of mimicry and acting to trick those who have robbed her and her sister of their fortune.
For the most part No Name was a fun read. Captain Wragge and his wife offer plenty of funny moments, and secret war between the captain and Mrs Lecount kept me on my toes. However, the latter part of the novel does drag a bit. There were a lot of instances where I think Magdalen should have remained in the limelight, given that she was the protagonist. My favourite part remains the first act, before the tragedy struck the Vanstone family. We get to see the lovely dynamics between the various family members and their routines. I loved those first 100 pages or so.
The ending sort of made up for all that Magdalen endures but…still, part of me wishes (view spoiler)[she had been able to get her fortune back by herself and that she had not fallen ill…I am glad that she ends up with Kirke but it seemed a bit rushed that ending. (hide spoiler)]
MY RATING: 4 ½ stars
“Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.”
Jane Eyre is not only considered a classic (if not the classic) in feminist literature, but an exemplary piece of Romantic Gothic literature. Personally, I view Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman novel, one that wonderfully dramatises a woman’s quest for self-realisation and personal freedom. Throughout the course of the narrative, the eponymous heroine of this novel undergoes an organic growth that allows her to find and develop her own individuality and to become, not only independent, but socially integrated.
If I had to be perfectly honest however I will admit that I enjoyed Jane Eyre more the first time I read it. This second time round I felt vaguely disenchanted by its story and baffled by its romance (which I will discuss further ahead). This may be because in the years between these re-readings I read and fell in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (which happens to be an extremely underrated novel). Jane Eyre feels a lot ‘safer’ by comparison. The storyline is fairly straightforward, whereas Villette has a rather labyrinthine plot, and Jane—unlike the dark horse Lucy Snowe—carries her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, there is much to be appreciated in Jane Eyre.
Brontë’s writing is captivating and beautifully eloquent. Readers are likely to become fond of Jane and her many ‘plights’ within the very first pages. Jane is such a genuine character, and Brontë perfectly renders the workings of her mind.
There are also an abundance of insightful passages regarding questions of gender, class, and freedom. Sometimes these subjects are actively spoken about or discussed between the novel’s characters. At times it is Jane who turns these issues over in her mind, questioning her motives, aspirations, and feelings.
The friendship Jane develops with another girl early on in the narrative is quite touching. We can see the way in which this connection enables Jane to self-improve and to survive Lowood.
Jane also finds a constant companion in nature. As a child she escapes her painful existence by reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Whereas as an adult she finds it soothing to go outside for walks, often projecting her own states of mind onto the landscape surrounding her. Throughout the course of her story the image of the moon takes on an almost maternal role.
“I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—”
Like Villette, Jane Eyre demonstrates Brontë’s awareness to the harsh realities faced by women who lack financial, social, or familial support. As an orphan Jane is incredibly vulnerable as she is entirely responsible for her own survival. As ‘humble’ governess she does not believe that she could ever enter the marital marketplace. Jane occupies an awkward space: she is not a servant or working-class woman, yet she is repeatedly made to feel as socially inferior to her cousins and socialites such as Blanche Ingram.
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
Jane herself merely wants to escape the oppression and starvation that she experienced at Gateshead and at Lowood. Yet, although Thornfield Hall is presented to us through a fairy-tale lens (early on Jane compares Mr. Rochester’s mansion to “Bluebeard’s castle”), it is by no means a safe haven. Still, Jane can see beyond its gloomy interiors, and in spite of whatever or whoever may roam inside its walls, she falls in love with Thornfield Hall. Its ground have a particularly soothing effect on her.
Jane’s pilgrimage however does not end at Thornfield and the depravations that follow her employment to Mr. Rochester strengthen her resolve to gain true independence.
What I love the most about Jane Eyre is steeped in solitariness. Jane is an outsider, a single woman without any concrete social aspirations (as an orphan Jane is wholly responsible for her own survival and independence), who as an adult is most at ease in the role of impassive observer. Yet, underneath her fixed demeanour lies a passionate soul. Throughout the course of the novel, as Jane grows from a “passionate child” into a solemn governess, she is negotiating contradictory forces: on the one hand she desperately craves independence so that she can positively and freely experience the world, on the other, she does not want to be ‘wicked’ or to stray away from a morally righteous path. She simultaneously fears and desires to be the type of woman that Victorian society would deem ‘unnatural’.
Jane’s self-divide is strikingly rendered by her interior monologue which emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces have on one’s ‘formation’. The dialogue between Jane’s different selves occurs throughout the course of the narrative. Most of her decision are dictated by her simultaneous and conflicting desire for self-sacrifice and self-dependence.
An aspect of Jane’s personality that is present from her childhood to her adulthood is her integrity (which other characters—such as Mrs. Sarah Reed, St. John Eyre Rivers, and Mr. Rochester—mistake as pride). Jane’s coming of age is the focus of Jane Eyre. Sadly the romance within this novel has often eclipsed its actual heroine. And while I can understand that modern readers may not see think of Jane as rebellious, to focus on her forgiveness of Mr. Rochester would be somewhat dismissive of her her earlier actions.
Whereas in Villette Lucy was fully aware of her romantic interest(s) flaws, Jane is much less critical. She does not seem to resent Mr. Rochester for having repeatedly lied to her and for having manipulated her. To Jane, Mr. Rochester is a victim. To me, Mr. Rochester is literally and figuratively big-headed. He gaslights, threatens, and emotionally manipulates Jane. He is awful. Brooding Byronic hero…as if. Most of what he said frustrated me. His redemption is extremely cheesy.
Jane is also blind to St. John Eyre Rivers’ horrible personality. He is yet another man who tries to coerce Jane into doing something she does not want to do. He also acts as if his own desires have godly origins and therefore must be obeyed.
While I do understand that Jane no longer wished to be separated from the man she loves, part of me wishes that her story could have ended in a more unconventional way…
“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)
Tonally The Prisoner of Heaven is closer to the first book in this series, yet its short length and fast plot-line seemed more in a line with those of a short story or a novella. While The Prisoner of Heaven was a bit too long for my liking, and its story ‘dragged’ a little, I had the opposite problem The Prisoner of Heaven as I found myself wanting the story to slow down a little.
The story follows once more Daniel who is now married to Bea and has become a father himself. A figure from Fermín’s past will bring to light some old secrets and a not unsurprising connection between Fermín and David.
While I was interested in Fermín’s backstory I did find the Bea side-story to be a bit of distraction, one that did not really contribute to the overall story. When things seem to be getting into motion the story ends which did lessen my overall enjoyment.
Still, in spite of these reservations, Zafón—perhaps thanks to his translator—remains a good writer, even if he occasionally spends too much time on silly jokes.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars
“They can’t turn me out or shut me out or laugh at me or hide from me; I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”
The first time I read The Haunting of Hill House I felt confused and vaguely underwhelmed. Having loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was expecting a similar reading experience…but although The Haunting of Hill House has many of Jackosn’s trademarks (an alienated young woman, a creepy ambience, a house that acts as a character, doubles, a sense of surreality) the narrative was even more confounding than her usual. A third re-read of this novel has allowed me to appreciate the story and its characters much more than I did on my first read.
Jackson has that unique vision that makes her stories immediately recognisable. Her idiosyncratic style is not for everyone and many readers that have watched the Netflix adaptation of this novel will find themselves thrown into a bizarre Tim Burton-ish sort of story that is unlike the tv series.
Still, while this might not be Jackson’s most ‘accessible’ novel it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest haunted-house story ever-written.
Yet, while the haunting—aka the supernatural element—is what this novel is known for, there are many other aspects that make this novel so unnerving. What Eleanor Vance experiences in Hill House is not solely a result of the house’s paranormal activity, and her character both adheres to and transcends the mould of the ‘passive’ Gothic heroine. The “hauntedness” we read of, is not in the actual house but in Eleanor herself.
As soon as we are introduced to her we learn of her unhappy and uneventful existence. Having spent ten year as her mother’s sole caretaker, frozen in a life of servitude, and locked in a relationship ‘built up devotedly around small guilts […] constant weariness, and unending despair’ (25), Eleanor has grown into an emotionally stunted adult. Throughout the course of the novel Jackson depicts the way in which Eleanor’s mind is triggered by the matriarchal presence of Hill House and, ‘haunted’ by her traumatic childhood and her troubled relationship with her mother, she slowly descends into childishness. Her behaviour, and her rejection of adult life, might seem ‘weird’ and sudden but if we pay attention we can see that Jackson early on introduces us to certain images and words that allude to much of what happens to Eleanor in Hill House.
In this novel, Jackson’s interpretation of novels of formation is even more subversive than in Hangsaman, to the extent that Eleanor’s story arc is that of an anti-Bildungsroman sees her absorbed into Hill House.
Jackson’s writing itself is as unique as always. She has that rhythm, that perfect symmetry, that makes many of her paragraphs into tiny masterpieces. And, of course, there is her humour which might often makes her characters seem to be somewhat hysterical. Yet, since everything has this surreal quality, the weirdness of the characters and their world makes sense.
In spite of its moments of humour, and of the many amusing scenes contained in this novel, reading again made me more aware of the anxiety and depression felt by Eleanor…so yes, this novel is not an easy read, yet it has so many interesting layers and quirks that I fully recommend it (especially to established Jackson fans). We see the few options left to someone who has never had the chance to enter the adult world, form adult relationships…Eleanor dreams and daydreams are filled with a yearning to belong…which ultimately leads to her dissolution.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
The story had some potential, which is why I was very frustrated by the way the storyline developed.
To begin with, I was absorbed by the setting of the novel: a creepy manor in Scotlandwhere the main character, Ailsa, lived as child. After her father’s mysterious disappearance she and her mother moved away. Years later a ‘grown-up’ Ailsa is preoccupied by her missing father, and between each chapter we get a ‘what if’ scenario where she imagines that he is either dead, happily re-married, or after an accident has become an amnesiac and lives abroad. These tidbits were creative and made the otherwise boring Ailsa into an interesting character.
I also enjoyed the way the setting was portrayed: the accents and mannerism of Ailsa’s new acquaintances give the impression that Elliott has an ear for language and speech inflections. The manor too had a foreboding aura which was well depicted.
The slow burn mystery mostly consisted in Ailsa doubting and interrogating the people around her. ‘Someone’ is not happy of her presence in the manor and is leaving rather undesirable gifts…
Ailsa was an ‘okay’ character. I wish she had a bit more of a backbone or at least a bit more character. Her ‘half-sister’ was a rather useless character. The typical ‘younger, more attractive/charming’ sister type who was ready to abandon Ailsa for someone she had met once…the men were sort of interchangeable. I was disappointed to see how little importance some of them had in the overall storyline (given that so much time was spent on them).
A lot of suspense stemmed from what I can best describe as being jump-scares….the whole ‘reveal’ was somewhat ridiculous and off-beat.
Overall, this was a forgetful and rather cliched read. If you are looking for a quick ‘light-suspense’ read, this might be for you.
Throughout Things in Jars Jess Kidd showcases her creativity. This novel imbues its mystery with an intriguing mixture of fantasy and science.
Kidd’s main character is a tour de force. Bridie Devine is an experienced detective. Her strength, her resilience, and her sharp-wit, made her into an incredibly compelling character. Her relationship with Cora, her ‘second in command’ who is about 7ft tall, provided a lot of heart-warming scenes. Their interactions were funny and consolidated the depiction of her friendship.
At the start of the story, and coinciding with her new case, Bridie meets a former boxer Ruby Doyle…who happens to be a ghost. He claims that they knew each other, but Bridie doesn’t seem to remember him. Together they try to find Christabel Berwick, a remarkable child who has been kidnapped. Bridie and Ruby’s scenes were perhaps some of favourite moments in this novel. These two have a great (not strictly romantic) chemistry and I found their banter to be really entertaining.
The other characters were definitely…picturesque. They were not as interesting as Bridie or her friends and they often seemed either weird or creepy (a few manage to be both).
Kidd sets her intriguing story in London 1863. The city comes to life through layers and layers of vivid descriptions. Her London buzzes with a chaotic energy and at times it could be almost overwhelming there. The dialogues, dialects, and expressions all conveyed this historical period.
What stopped me from ever loving this novel—in spite of its many merits—is the writing style. The sprawling narrative jumps from character such as Bridie to a secondary character to an animal, such as a bird or a horse, to the objects of a room or the city itself. Everything seemed to become part of this narration, and at times I wished it would just settle down on Bridie. From the start of the novel there are chapters from the person who has taken Christabel and they sort of undermined Bridie’s storyline, which should have been the focus of this story.
Often sequences would seemed clouded by this unrelentingly exuberant narration. Revelations where muddled, characters’ actions or choices seemed to be revealed in a backwards sort of way, to the point where it seemed I had to re-read and decode a scene before grasping what had happened.
Each phrase or description seemed far too playful. Soon these funny description became repetitive and predictable. The humour was overwhelmingly there. Everything was meant to be amusing, which didn’t quite work in favour of the most serious or dramatic scenes. The narrative was almost interactive…which I found irritating since it made the characters and their experiences in a bit of a joke. It just made some of themes less serious.
If you don’t mind this sort of playful style (which uses the type of humour that a child might use: arse and farts jokes, comparing people to turkeys and crabs ) this might be book for you.
I was hoping that this would be a ‘guilty pleasure’ of sorts or a cozy Gothic story…I wasn’t prepared for such a cheesy and badly written story. This book was unintentionally funny.
The start of this novel was interesting enough, and the first few chapter showed potential.
Soon, however, I started to notice a few things that ruined any possibility of my liking this novel.
✎ THE WRITING
I don’t like to be too critical about someone’s writing skills but here there was an abundance of cringe-worthy descriptions and phrases which seemed to belong to a piece of fanfiction I wrote at the age of 14, which was far from great (quite the opposite in fact, it was terrible, my main character was perpetually ‘narrowing’ her eyes…something which Eleanor does as well).
-The main character repeatedly ‘winces‘ at her own thoughts (wince appeared in different forms—ie. winced, wincing—for a grand total of 25 times)
✖ Characters were squinting so much that I started thinking they were all having some sort of attack or that they all need to go to specsavers and get some glasses (the squinting count is up to 50, I kid you not)
✖ There were those cheesy he/she ‘smiled a sad smile’, ‘smiled a broad smile’ or ‘smiled a warm smile’
✖ ‘I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding’ appears twice (once isn’t good, but twice? Really?)
✖ Talking of breaths, the main character takes approximately 20 ‘deep breaths’ (I get that she is scared and trying to calm herself down but we don’t need to know that she is trying to slow her breath down every single time…)
✖ The men in this book kept scowling, winking and they must be mutants or walking torchlights since they keep ‘flashing’ their eyes and grins at the main character.
✖ In one scene Harriet ‘pipes up’ 3 times. W-H-Y
✖ The whole thing was incredibly ludicrous. Really? I’m supposed to feel satisfied by such a hackneyed plot? Nothing much happens but after seeing a creepy dollhouse the main character is convinced that the place is haunted. Sure.
✖ It took me awhile before I realised that the main character is supposed to be around 40. She behaves and sounds like a teenager with no experience whatsoever. She keeps telling us that she used to be a crime reporter but I just couldn’t believe it. Her character has no history, no substantial past. She seems a barely formed being with no foundations beneath her surface. Her stupidity was infuriating, nearly as much as her habit of blushing when in the vicinity of a man. She is a pantomime. When she has a bad thought she ‘shakes [her] head, as if to shake the feeling away’ and she isn’t capable of thinking things through or of articulating a thought that isn’t related to her attraction to two random men.
✖ The other characters do not speak or behave like people. They seem like play-acting children.
Eleanor is surprised by her instant attraction to two different men: ‘I truly didn’t know what to make of my attraction both him and X’. She has to tell herself that she can’t like them since she ‘had just met’ them (she has this thought often). They both start calling her Norrie hours after their first meeting.
And then…this happens:
“There was an energy, a sense of magic that vibrated in the air around us, my body vibrating with it. My peripheral vision blurred as thought the room had fallen away, disintegrated into dust, and there was nothing in the whole world except [his] eyes.”
I have a limit for cheesiness…
I hope that the main character isn’t called Eleanor as an homage to Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House…there were a few moments which seem ‘borrowed’ from Hill House. Mmh.
This book strings together the most glaring clichés. From the corny writing style to the sloppy romance…it was just bad.
“ Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.
Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.”
Having loved The Thirteenth Tale I had quite high expectations for Once Upon a River. While this novel is a bit of a departure from The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield explores similar themes.
The act/art of storytelling plays a huge role in Once Upon a River, and I would go as far as to say that storytelling is the real protagonist of this novel. From its title and its very first pages, the novel addresses the importance of storytelling. The narration feels as belonging to a teller of tales. The way in which certain things are revealed to the reader and the careful rhythm created by stressing certain words or phrases really echoes that of a fairy tale or folktale.
This novel is a homage to these types of tales, conjuring up lore whilst remaining faithful to its own story. Once Upon a River is a modern addition to a long beloved tradition and it provides readers with a more expressive and eloquent tale.
This novel is a bit of a slow burn. To start with, I didn’t know that it was going to be an actual ‘tale’, so I wasn’t sure of the direction of the narrative. I wondered at the large cast of characters, the to-and-fro between them, and the seemingly trivial details that take up so much of the narrative…and then, before I begun to realise it, I found myself completely absorbed by the world and the characters depicted by Setterfield. The little girl herself doesn’t have a voice as such
, which was a bit of a pity, and the novel seems to focus on the parents rather than the children. Nevertheless, there are many lovely and moving scenes between various family members, especially between husbands and wives.
My only issue in regards of these characters is that although the main characters felt nuanced, the ‘bad guys’ of the story are merely ‘villains’ and are to blame for all the horrible and or sad things that happe
n within the narrative. The novel seemed rather simplistic in its portrayal of good vs. bad. We get very few glimpses of the thoughts and motivations of the ‘bad guys’ and by the end it seemed a bit too easy to make them in such villainous figures. I know that fairy tales have such ‘bad’ figures but still, given that Setterfield has created a more complex sort of tale, I was hoping that all of the characters would be given the same sort of attention.
There are a lot of small mysteries peppered throughout the narrative. Some might be easy to guess but it is the way in which the narrative reveals these ‘mysteries’ that makes them worth having. I was fascinated by the gossip and rumours surrounding the little girl, and it was interesting to see what various characters believed to be the truth:
Overall, I enjoyed it. It might be slow going at first but as the characters and their lives take shape, and lulled by the wistful and spellbinding narrative, I soon realised that Once Upon a River is not only a tale worth reading but a tale worth revisiting.
What a pity. I was expecting The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter to be a sort of gender-bender take on famous Gothic and Crime classics. Sadly, Goss doesn’t handle well intertextuality so well. She includes too much and the sheer amount of things she tries to drag into her story makes the existence of this novel seem like an excuse to show off all of her favourite classics.
The beginning wasn’t so bad. Mary Jekyll has just lost her mother and is experiencing financial troubles. Some information regarding her now deceased father’s connection to Mr. Hyde brings her into the path of Sherlock Holmes and his associate Dr. Watson. Through both luck and chance Mary ends up meeting Diana, Beatrice, Justine and Catherine. They are all connected through the work of scientists such as Mary’s fathers.
Now…one of my main issue with the story is that it all feels so incredibly easy. Mary manages to accompany Holmes and Watson in their investigations…are we to believe that they would have really let her come along? Especially since she really isn’t as sharp or bright as we are initially lead to believe…?
Mary’s adventures are incredibly repetitive: here she finds Diana, then she meets Beatrice, and then Justine and Catherine…and guess what? They are all connected! And they are all fine working together just a few minutes after having met one another.
The biggest…biggest problem was the writing style. Goss decided to make one of her heroines the writer of this ‘novel’. So throughout we have a constant commentary from the characters, talking about the way Catherine is writing, what she is including etc.
I thought that it slowed the story’s pace and it came across as terribly conceited. A description could be followed by comments such as:
JUSTINE: That’s a lovely description, Catherine.
CATHERINE: Thank you! I’m glad someone notices when I write particularly well.
And Catherine keeps emphasising how ‘new and different’ her writing technique is…
JUSTINE: Is the story supposed to be jumping around like that, from Mary’s head, to Diana’s, to Beatrice’s?
CATHERINE: I told you, this is a new way of writing.
Catherine often explains the addition of certain scenes or dialogues:
We’re trying to recount how we all came together, describe who we are. That’s not just the story of how we solved the Whitechapel Murders. It’s the story of us.
Comments of that type made it hard to ‘get into’ the actual narration. Each time I tried to get immersed into the storyline, the commentary pulled me away. The girls bicker about ‘you shouldn’t have added that’ and ‘I didn’t say/think that’. It wasn’t amusing, it was just annoying. It didn’t make the girls more real…it simply made them insufferable. And funnily enough, they all sounded more or less like each other. Their main differences were in their ‘special’ attributes…and their ‘fathers’.
She had only known them for a few days, but already they felt like family, as though they belonged together.
BEATRICE: As we do.
MARY: Despite our differences.
BEATRICE: Or because of them.
➜The characters were all flat: the characterisation relayed on the ‘names’ rather than actual character.
➜Everyone and everything that happens seemed a mere excuse as to be able to include all sorts of classic ‘monsters’.
➜The story was a sequence of similarly forgettable ‘adventures’. Lots of ‘coincidences’ helped the investigation…
➜The characters go from place to place, without paying attention to their surroundings.
➜The novel is orientated on the ‘investigation’ which didn’t offer any interesting scenes or anecdotes. It wasn’t surprising nor intriguing…Holmes and Watson are more or less caricatures…
➜Certain terms made the historical setting rather implausible. The funny commentary was not funny.
Mary’s blood ran cold in her veins.
CATHERINE: Now am I being melodramatic?
MARY: No […] but as a metaphor, it accurately describes how I felt at the time.
Goss’ seems to be ignoring her story and characters, favouring instead the opportunity to include as many different ‘cult’ monsters and characters into her novel, which is far too self-congratulatory.
My rating: 2.5 stars