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Helen Lewis

The House with Old Furniture

Category: Fiction | Published: 2017 | Review Added: 27-11-2020

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

Evie Wolfe and her husband Andrew move to Pembrokeshire to start a new life after their eldest son is murdered in a drugs feud. Andrew, a senior civil servant, keeps disappearing back to London to attend to affairs of state, and probably to meet his old flame Caroline. Grieving Evie is left alone with their remaining son Finn. Evie drinks a lot and sees things that can't be there; but it's not the drink doing it, because Finn sees them as well. Evie uncovers a local story of broken promises and young death during the First World War that in some ways parallels her own situation. She struggles to settle in remotest Wales, but who can blame her, given what she's going through?

As Evie sinks deeper into depression, drink and confusion, Andrew's snobbish parents take control of the family's cottage, setting the scene for a showdown of recrimination and spite.

The House with Old Furniture tells a good story, and it has a surprise ending that is effective in a melodramatic way. However, the writing is very variable. Lewis recreates the setting of Pembrokeshire vividly, and when she tries, she can write well. She often captures physical detail and nuances of feeling precisely, and the relationship between Evie and Finn acquires some depth as the narrative progresses. However, there are too many stock characters to make the story all that interesting psychologically. There's a suave, two-faced husband, an interfering mother-in-law, a pompous politician father-in-law, and a hippy best friend who runs a cafe. Towards the end of the book, as events speed up, so too does the speed at which Lewis writes, and the dialogue is straight out of a soap opera script.

Elsewhere, there is a fair bit of overwriting, the author unable to resist shoehorning in every qualifier and image that strike her as effective:

Choosing embarrassment as my weapon of defence, I quickly unbuttoned my pyjamas and forced an enormous blue-veined breast into my son's tiny rosebud mouth. He was greedily grateful. Ignoring the red-hot-poker pain he caused with his rough-cat tongue, I glared at the pair of them.

Writers need to be sparing with ornamentation: too much of it makes the scene less vivid, not more.

Sceptical readers will have to suspend their disbelief for the supernatural side of the story. I didn't mind it so much; it wasn't very plausible, and Evie's and Finn's lack of astonishment at seeing and conversing with spirits didn't really ring true to me; but what do I know about how people react to seeing ghosts?

I also wasn't entirely convinced by the adoption by the Wolfes' eldest son Jesse of a gangsta lifestyle. Some middle-class teenagers do go off the rails, but usually in more subtle ways than by joining street gangs. I suppose it could happen, but again, it didn't quite ring true.

The House with Old Furniture doesn't (I assume) aspire to being a literary masterpiece, and it does its job well enough for the most part, being quickly-paced and - more than one can say for many novels - written with its ending in mind, rather than just meandering away from a beginning.

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