Curiouser and curiouser, Alice in Wonderland would have remarked if she had wandered through the intriguing plotlines in Eliza Graham’s haunting new novel.
The History Room is a clever and compelling story, one that addresses social issues past and present, the fall-out from broken relationships, the devastation of war and yet grips like a vice with the disturbing mystery at its heart.
The addictive mixture of light and darkness, warmth and cold, joy and sadness make for an unforgettable rollercoaster ride which ends abruptly in a truly unexpected and unsettling last lap.
Strange happenings at a grand Cotswold private school would seem to be nothing more than cruel pranks but as Graham ratchets up the tension, we sense an evil that is uncomfortably at odds with the mellow warmth of the rural setting.
Letchford, a school noted for its high standards and happy ethos, is run by its founder Charles Statton who appears to his staff and pupils to be the archetypal English headmaster.
His youngest daughter Meredith Cordingley, whose marriage has been falling apart since her soldier husband Hugh was maimed by an explosive device in Afghanistan, has returned to teach at Letchford but is struggling to ‘outpace’ her heartache over Hugh and the recent sudden death of her mother.
The timeless setting provides Meredith with a tranquil refuge until one afternoon when a shocking discovery is made in the history room. The police are called, but all is not what it seems.
Unsettled by events, she finds ghosts are now ‘hanging all around the fringes and if I turned my head quickly enough I’d glimpse them.’
Meredith is determined to discover the culprit and becomes convinced that a manipulative member of staff is controlling the sinister goings-on at her beloved Letchford, and exerting a malign influence on a vulnerable and troubled young pupil.
Her journey to untangle the truth takes Meredith back to her father’s roots in communist Czechoslovakia, to ‘another person, a man with a hinterland unknown to us.’
But digging up the past risks her father’s reputation, as well as her own, and as the mystery unravels Meredith finds out that there is more than one person at Letchford who is hiding complicated secrets...
Graham’s story relies on three narrative voices, allowing readers an insight into the principal characters’ thoughts and motives without giving away too much information on essential strands of the plot.
Multi-themed, emotionally wise and perfectly paced, The History Room delivers an absorbing read with a twist in its tail that is guaranteed to darken dreams for days after the last page has turned.
(Pan, paperback, £7.99)