Nathaniel, or Natty as his family calls him, is a young man at a crossroads. His mother wants him to spend time with her family, far better off than his father, who is a poor vicar. His father would rather he do just about anything else, and his cousins have no interest in getting to know him. So what’s a young man with very few prospects to do? When Natty meets Miles Lovell, a sophisticated friend of his cousin, he thinks he’s found something worth his while. During their long visit together, Natty discovers things about himself that he never expected, and manages to acquire a ghostly companion, as well. Haunted by a faceless woman, who seems to appear when he’s at his weakest, Natty struggles with his own nature, and with his family’s increasing difficulties. His mother is distant, hiding things from him as she never has, and his father is growing old and tired before his eyes. While Natty tries to find his place in the world, his childhood is crumbling around him, and he becomes more and more convinced that his persistent spirit is a harbinger of doom. Caught in a web of deceit and desperation, Natty must decide whether he will let his life be ruled by others, or if he can make his way on his own, or if the family banshee will bring about his ruin.
Review by Alex Beecroft
I started reading this book under a misapprehension which rather coloured my enjoyment of it. You see, I thought it was m/m romance, and I kept waiting for the romance to kick in. Come on, I thought, at this rate we’ll reach the end and they’ll never get together!
And then I did reach the end, and I had to reconsider everything.
After a bit of thought, I realized that the book was never meant to be a romance. It’s a coming of age story – a story about a young man’s journey from childhood to adulthood, via a confused and tragic adolescence. The fact that the young man is attracted to other young men is almost incidental beside his struggle to find out who he is, and to get the people around him to accept him as an adult.
Once I’d got this sorted out in my mind, I was able to read it again and appreciate what it was doing, rather than what it wasn’t.
Hayden Thorne has a real gift with language and if this had been put before me as a memoire written in the 19th Century, I would have happily believed in its veracity – her language is that authentic. The pace and atmosphere of the novel is also very similar to 19th century classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and I felt it had a real kinship to both books.
We begin with an account of the hero’s childhood, where he is condescended to by his socially superior cousins. His mother foolishly eloped with his father, and although they have been happily married for years, still his father is just a lowly vicar. After having been all but disowned, his mother is intent on winning back her place in her family, and his father allows this, despite being too proud to go with her and risk looking like a supplicant.
All this, which seems incidental trivia at first, is going to be wound skilfully back into the story later, in what is a beautifully plotted book. Nothing can be assumed to be irrelevant here, and there are clues as subtly placed as in any mystery.
As Natty grows, he forms a special attachment to his cousin’s friend, Miles Lovell; an attachment which is returned. Through this friendship, Natty comes to realize that he is attracted to men, and that he is deeply in love with Miles. Miles, however, is due to be married to a young lady, and even if he were not, he is socially so much Natty’s superior that they have no real chance of a life together. This causes Natty surprisingly little general anxiety. For a vicar’s son, he seems remarkably unconcerned about God’s attitude to his inclinations, and if the story had been focussed entirely on his sexual awakening, I might have found his lack of faith disturbing 😉 His lack of conflict with his faith, at least.
However, Natty’s realization that he is attracted to men is the least disturbing thing in his life at this point. His mother and father are quarrelling and their marriage is under threat. His own future is the subject of pressure and rebuke from his family. His mother’s connexions want higher things for him than he wants for himself, his father is reluctant to take handouts and the situation between his parents is deteriorating. And worse than all of this, he finds himself being haunted by the silent and awful figure of a white lady who comes upon him whenever he is out of doors and makes his every journey an ordeal of terror.
For my money, the ghostly parts of the book really stood out. They genuinely made my hair stand on end. Really well done and frightening!
Nathaniel must find it in himself to fact this terror, to face the disillusion of his family, and to grow up, and he does. I’m not going to say what happens with the ghost, because when I realized what was happening there, I was full of admiration for the author’s plotting, and I don’t want to spoil that satisfying moment for others. But suffice it to say, everything is resolved admirably, and sometimes surprisingly. Just don’t set your heart on a happy ending for Natty and Miles together, the way I did. It isn’t a romance, and if you read it as one, you will be disappointed.
If you read it as a coming of age story, however, it’s wonderful. So I recommend you do just that.