I think this novel by a new author might become a favourite for many readers.
The Whistling by Rebecca Netley
If you can hear it, it’s already too late . . . SEND SHIVERS DOWN YOUR SPINE WITH THIS CHILLING AND GRIPPING STORY SET IN A FAR-FLUNG SCOTTISH ISLAND
**THE PERFECT HALLOWEEN READ AS THE NIGHTS DRAW IN**
‘Chills you to your bones . . . More unsettling and beautiful than you can imagine’ 5***** READER REVIEW
On the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea, Elspeth Swansome takes on a position as a nanny.
Her charge, Mary, hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin, William – just days after their former nanny disappeared. But no one will speak of what happened to William.
Just as no one can explain the lullabies sung in empty corridors.
Nor the strange dolls that appear in abandoned rooms.
Nor the faint whistling that comes in the night . . .
As winter draws in, Elspeth finds herself increasingly trapped.
But is this house haunted by the ghosts of the past?
OR THE SECRETS OF THE LIVING . . . ?
Chilling, twisty and emotionally gripping, The Whistling is an atmospheric page-turner with shades of the classics, yet a unique character of its own, perfect for fans of Susan Hill and Laura Purcell
‘I was sucked in from page one and read it in one fell swoop’ 5***** READER REVIEW
‘A wicked twist . . . brilliant, scary, clever. Horror writing at its best’ 5***** READER REVIEW
‘A great story with moments of heart-grabbing terror, beautifully written’ 5***** READER REVIEW
About the author:
Rebecca Netley grew up as part of an eccentric family in a house full of books and music, and these things have fed her passions. Family and writing remain at the heart of Rebecca’s life. She lives in Reading with her husband, sons and an over-enthusiastic dog, who gives her writing tips. The Whistling is Rebecca Netley’s debut novel and won the Exeter Novel Prize.
I thank NetGalley and Penguin Michael Joseph UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review. This is the debut novel of the author, and it is likely that we’ll be hearing plenty from her in the future.
This is a Gothic novel, and although it is brand new, lovers of the genre will recognise many/most of the expected tropes and details they’ve come to love over the years: a remote and dark place (the imaginary Scottish Island of Skelthsea, which the author manages to make both, menacing and beautiful); a threatening mansion that becomes a character in its own right; a young lone woman, who has experienced much trauma and loss, arrives to the house and has to confront a less-than-warm welcome and some open animosity; secrets and mysteries everybody insists in keeping from the main protagonist; some eerie and difficult to explain events; some seemingly friendly people who offer to help, and others who seem intent on harming or at least obstructing the protagonist; “strange” children; plenty of alternative versions of what might have happened, some more difficult to believe than others; and a paranormal element to the story (or more than one), in this case related to the island’s ancestral knowledge/traditions (or superstitions?). Many of the reviewers mention some of the novels The Whistling reminded them of, and, for those who like to read both, the classics and more modern takes on the genre, this one fits into quite a well-known subgenre, that of the young woman coming to look after and/or educate the (usually recently orphaned) children of a fairly well-to-do family, who have been left in charge of a relative not up to (or interested in) the task. You’ll probably be able to come up with a few titles that would fit the description —films as well as books— although in my case, to begin with, I kept thinking of Henry James’s A Turn of the Screw, because the tone of menace and the emphasis on the previous nanny reminded me of that story, but… I will try not to reveal any spoilers, because despite the general sense of familiarity one experiences when reading the story, there are quite a few twists and turns, and plenty of red herrings to keep readers guessing.
This a very atmospheric novel, and apart from the actual paranormal element, there are quite a few other topics (some more habitual than others), that play a part in the story. There is grief; trauma; difficult family relationships; sibling rivalry; small communities and how they deal with outsiders; the role of women in society; poor mental health and how it was dealt with in the past; different kinds of love; duty, and feelings of guilt; ancient beliefs, tradition, and rationality; how vulnerable we are to suggestion, especially when we are alone and not on familiar ground… Although the novel stays close to the classic style, and I wouldn’t say it presents a totally novel take on the subject, the focus on the character’s past history and the amount of psychological detail it conveys give it a more modern feel.
It is difficult to talk about the characters without giving away too much of the story, but I will say that the protagonist, Elspeth —who is also the first-person narrator of the story— is a sympathetic character, and one easy to root for. She has lived through some pretty traumatic experiences, and we meet her at a moment when she has lost everybody and everything, and places all her hopes and dreams on this job, on her new charge, Mary, and on a new life away from her sad memories and experiences. As you can imagine, things don’t go to plan, but despite her fear and the threats and warnings she keeps getting, she sticks by the girl and gets to really care for her. What is quite extraordinary as well, in this novel, is how many of the characters share characteristics and are mirror images of each other or, perhaps, they embody different examples of the effects such traumas could have in the development of a person, depending on their previous personalities and circumstances. We have quite a few characters who have lost their parents, at a fairly early age; who have suffered trauma (physical, mental, or even both); who have been abused or have seen loved ones being abused or made a mockery of by members of the community they live in; who have had difficult relationships with siblings and have then lost them (and experience guilt); who have had to deal with a responsibility imposed on them by birth or society; who have nobody they can trust and have to keep quiet (figuratively or otherwise)… This background is shared by characters who (at least on the surface) are “good”, but also by some Elspeth suspects from the very beginning of being evil, which highlights the idea that both, nature and nurture, are equally important when it comes to the upbringing of a person (and this is further brought home by the many siblings who also populate the novel, and who tend to be completely different from each other).
The story is told by Elspeth, from her point of view, and that works very well to place readers in her shoes and make us experience things first-hand. It is also a great way to tell the story and to maintain the mystery, as we, like her, know nothing of the setting, and we discover it with her, slowly and gradually. There is some telling, as Elspeth gets increasingly curious and suspicious about what is going on, and she starts asking questions, but many of the other characters are very reluctant to divulge any but the most basic of information, and we only get to learn some bits of gossip and rumours for much of the novel.
I have mentioned how well the author captures the atmosphere, the way she uses the island, the house, the weather, to play with the protagonist’s subjectivity, and to increase the tension and the suspense of the story. There are vivid descriptions, but they never feel forced or excessive, and there are plenty of events and happenings to keep the action and the story moving. The story has three parts, and some reviewers complained that the novel, especially the first part, is quite slow. Most of them recognised, though, that this is in keeping with the genre of the novel. Personally, I felt it worked well, and the story didn’t drag for me. (People who are not used to the genre or to these kinds of books might feel it is too slow, but I don’t think it would work as well if it was any faster). The story picks up the pace as the warnings, threats, and worrying events pile up, and the clues to the mystery and the red herrings are nicely scattered around the book and will keep readers turning the pages, even if it is at a more leisurely pace than in modern mystery novels. Don’t hesitate to check a sample of the book if you like the sound of it, as you will get a fair idea of what the style of the whole novel is like pretty quickly.
To give you a taster, I couldn’t resist sharing a few passages. Remember, though, that I read an ARC copy, so there might be modifications and small changes in the final version.
I felt then not just the strangeness of the unfamiliar house but something else, a quality to the quietness that seemed unnatural, and experienced the tiniest nibble of some doubt.
Perhaps, I thought, mourning could never be fully emptied.
‘Some souls are made to be dark.’ She studied me with something like pity. ‘The world gives birth to both the viper and the lamb, and there are churches for each.’
The silence was as deep and still as distant galaxies. Every piece of my life came polished to diamond sharpness, fragments hurled at me with the speed of comets: the coiling smoke of Swan House, my mother’s face with death upon it, the warmth of Clara’s hand —no regret: my heart was as flat as paper.
What to say about the ending? It is all solved and all questions answered, and I liked it a lot. Most of the explanations are pretty rational and would fit into a standard mystery novel, but the supernatural also plays a part, as it should in this genre. Did I guess what was really going on? To tell you the truth, I was carried away by the atmosphere and the all-engrossing aura of the story, and I didn’t spend as much time as I would in a standard mystery novel thinking about the whos and the whys. I did guess right, though, most of the answers, although not all the details, and many of the detours and red herrings made me change my mind a few times. But, although not a standard mystery, for me that part of the story works well, and the ending is a happy one, given the circumstances.
Would I recommend this novel? Definitely for anybody who loves Gothic mysteries and fiction, particularly those involving a mysterious house, magnetic locations, young women, and children. If you favour a quick and fast story, and a modern style of writing, clipped and to the point, this might not be for you, as it is written in the style of the classics. I am not sure I would class it as a horror story (I didn’t feel scared, but I am not easily frightened), and although there are eerie moments, they are mostly psychological in nature (that does not mean there is no real danger involved, and violence makes an appearance, although mostly out of the pages and is not explicit or extreme), anxiety-inducing and suspense and dread are the main emotions. A child dies, and there are plenty of disturbing and disturbed characters and traumatic events, so people looking for a light read, or a cheery story might need to be cautious, although the story ends on an optimistic note. A great example of a new Gothic novel, with a likeable and determined female protagonist, with no romance involved (in the main story), and with mysteries and supernatural happenings taking place in a truly remarkable setting. I will follow the author’s career with interest.
Thanks to NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to keep smiling, keep reading, and to stay safe. ♥