BOOK REVIEW: The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

BOOK REVIEW: The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

Picador
July 2017
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction

6/10

Eleanor and Richard have stretched themselves to the limit to buy the perfect home – a tall Victorian townhouse with enough room for their growing family. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and is convinced it is making her ill. Their two young daughters are restless and unsettled; three-year-old Rosie misbehaves and points to an imaginary girl.

Richard, still positive they’ve found the house of their dreams, is more preoccupied with Zoe: their alluring, mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger. As Eleanor’s symptoms intensify, she becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the family who last lived in the house. Who were the Ashworths? Why did they leave in such a hurry? And why is the name Emily written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room…?

Beautifully written and impossible to put down, The Upstairs Room is a contemporary ghost story and a novel about memory, loneliness, desire and love – the things that haunt us all.

 

It should be said from the start that this book suffers from something of a misleading blurb.

The writing is engaging and tangible, and there were some moments that had this lover of ghost stories pulling the covers a little higher at night.

Rosie was sitting upright in bed, shaking and crying uncontrollably. Eleanor reached out to her and Rosie recoiled. She didn’t seem to recognize her. She had an unfathomable expression of pure terror; she looked straight past Eleanor, staring at something which seemed to horrify her. Eleanor looked round instinctively but the wall behind her was blank.

But for the most part, it felt as though the ghostly elements made up a grand total of about 20% of this book and a large majority of the questions readers might have about these ghostly elements are left without any real hint at an answer.

Zoe woke up to find she had a creature sitting on her chest. It was some kind of large bird, but it had human arms where its legs should have been, splayed-out palms instead of feet. The palms were pressing, increasingly hard, on her chest. She tried to scream and throw it off, but it was no good, she was trapped. She could see the girl sitting in the corner of the room, watching. The pressure intensified. She wondered if this time she wouldn’t survive and then suddenly she was crying out and her arms were thrashing and there was no bird-creature and no girl.

The rest of the book is about relationships and dreams, with recurring themes of unbalanced love, settling, and restrictions with regards to relationships, and with artistic folk popping up left, right, and center. 

We have Richard and Eleanor who met in college and have been together for around fifteen years, and who have two daughters aged one and three. They’ve settled into a pattern, but at times do wonder about what could have been.

Richard was mesmerized. All this intimacy, just lying all over the floor. He could almost see her getting out of bed in the morning, tracing her path from the trail of belongings. He knew, and had come to terms with the idea, that Eleanor was the only woman he would ever have sex with. He hadn’t thought that she was the only woman he would know like this, about all the other kinds of closeness he was giving up.

There’s Zoe, their lodger, recently out of a six year relationship and trying to figure out her future with regards to relationships, work, and dreams.

Zoe wanted to tell her that something else was going to happen, that she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life in a stranger’s basement on her own, that it would get better than this. But she couldn’t quite see the way.

Was it normal to feel this anxious about moving in with someone, if you loved them? She would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified. The idea of someone being there every time you woke up felt intrusive. She worried that they wouldn’t have enough forks and she worried she would never masturbate again.

Every film she’d seen, book she’d read or conversation she’d had suggested that if someone made you feel that wonderful, you ought to be with them. But that meant neutering the feeling, with familiarity and gas bills and compromise, and then you had to promise never to feel that way about anyone ever again. It didn’t make any sense.

And the exploration of this combining of strange and familiar in a new setting – a house that has quite a bit of visible history – is bound to stir things up.

She could barely have intruded less, but Eleanor wanted to ignore her completely, and she couldn’t. The first week she was there, Eleanor found herself irritated by any trace of her at all: foreign salad leaves in the sink, her bicycle in the hall. It was vaguely repulsive, finding bits of a stranger in your house.

Sometimes she’d even catch herself in a daze: pouring fresh milk down the sink, about to scrape food remains into an open drawer. But that wasn’t what it felt like. It felt like the house was active. She didn’t expect things to stay as they were when she left them – a house with five people in it did not stay still. She expected crumbs on the bread board, depressions on the sofa. But this was something else.

Readers get to know our three protagonists little by little, with flashbacks and memories, and through interactions with each other and the people who cross their paths. 

The ghost theme is something of a catalyst for the story, for without it there wouldn’t be as much tension or mystery, and it is interesting and at times humorous to see the way that having five people in the house and moving things around can, at times, be misconstrued as ghost activity. It’s just a shame that it was advertised so heavily in the blurb and ended up accounting for so little of the book. 

As such, this is good read for those who enjoy people watching, as it were, but not so much for readers hoping for a spine-chilling ghost story.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

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