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Susan’s Bookshelves: Fyneshade by Kate Griffin

I knew nothing about Kate Griffin’s 2023 best seller although it had, apparently, a great deal of acclaim last year. I simply spotted it in a bookshop – it has recently gone into paperback – and thought it looked fun. And it is: whatever else I thought about it, Fyneshade is very compelling. What I hadn’t realised until I got to the acknowledgements at the end is that it is inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw which I have never read (nor seen Britten’s opera) because I don’t “do” ghosts. So I read it at face value.

We’re in an unspecified historical period in Derbyshire. It’s pre-industrial but I found the cigarettes an anachronistic irritant because they weren’t invented until 1842. Marta, a chillingly reliable narrator, is sent to be governess to a house called Fyneshade because she’s too “dangerous” and sexually alluring to be allowed to stay where she is. Her charge is an intriguing little girl named Grace who has – err – problems which revolt Marta who is anything but a nice person. She cares for nobody and is entirely focused on improving her lot irrespective of what she has to do to achieve that. There’s a strong strand of witchcraft running though this novel and Marta has a box of powerful tricks and lethal potions inherited from her grandmother which she isn’t afraid of using.

All the stock, governess novel characters are there except that most of them, in this case, aren’t what they seem. There’s a well meaning housekeeper, a couple of spiteful servants, a glamorous sexy man and, of course, a secret in the attic – sorry, North Wing. The debt to Jane Eyre and Rebecca is so clear that it’s effectively a pastiche although Griffin gives us a lot more sex. No prizes for guessing what eventually has to happen to the house. Bronte and Du Maurier fans will see it coming a mile off and it made me laugh aloud.

Because Marta is very much an anti-heroine the reader knows that, given the things she’s done, she has to get her just desserts in the end. And she does. Of course her dream isn’t going to come true and she has met her match in the sexy Vaughan  because he is as much as schemer as she is and of course, because he’s male and wealthy,  he gets what he wants and she doesn’t. All that is predictable too. I wasn’t expecting, though, the chilling scene in sleazy room in Deal at the end: suddenly we’re in a different sort of novel.

It’s a treat to have a child with special needs in a novel set in an age when, if they survived at all, such children would usually have been hidden from view in some ghastly institution. And this one has talents.  I also liked presentation of the carriages. Wasn’t the barouche always the vehicle of choice for a cad?  And, for anyone who likes historic houses, Griffin really pulls the stops out with the colourful depiction of Fyneshade.

It’s dark, gothic and entertaining for a casual read  – even if you haven’t read The Turn of the Screw.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Missing Rose by Linda Newbery

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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