Wednesday, 31 December 2014

'Sugar Hall' by Tiffany Murray

Although I’m not traditionally a fan of ghost stories, what with being a susceptible fool who is easily spooked, I ended up reading Tiffany Murray’s latest novel Sugar Hall in almost a day… as I just couldn’t put it down.

Loosely based on the spooky Littledean Hall near the Forest of Dean, the Sugar Hall of the title is a grandly imposing, and reputedly ugly, old stately home built by the fortunes of the Sugar family – who made their money via the equally ugly businesses of sugar trading and slave purchasing. With centuries of grisly stories embedded in its walls and surrounding woodland, the latest inhabitants of the Hall are Lilia Sugar and her two children Saskia and Dieter.

Lilia is the widowed wife of Peter Sugar, who was the final surviving descent of the Sugar family. As such, their young son Dieter Sugar is now the only living heir to the crumbling Sugar empire. Lilia and her children have inherited the freezing Hall in Peter’s will, and with fate not on their side, they’re forced to up sticks from their cosy London flat and move down to the chilly, alienating old house to see if they can make it home.

Despite warnings from various locals who know the hold the Hall has over the Sugar sons… and despite the chilling stories Dieter tells her of the boy with the silver collar who he finds around the place… Saskia militantly remains rooted to the Hall, trying her best to make it work for her two children.

But as the months pass, creepy event after spooky encounter stack up… and everything comes to a head.

Tiffany Murray’s writing style is engaging, and after only two or three chapters I was gripped and literally couldn’t put the book down all day, not until I had found out how it all worked out. She paints such a vivid description of the hideous Hall and its world that I was desperate to see a real picture for myself, to see if the image I’d painted in my head matched the actual Hall. But it is her creation of the manipulative and sad slave boy, who himself suffered at the hands of a former Sugar master, that is truly at the heart of Sugar Hall.

Sugar Hall is up there with Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat as one of the two finest contemporary ghost stories I’ve read in recent years.

'Because Of The Lockwoods' by Dorothy Whipple

There’s a formula to Dorothy Whipple books and it’s a winning formula – that’s why back in the 1940s and 1950s she was such a bestselling author, and that’s why the Persephone Books reprints of those novels continue to remain among the publishers’ bestselling novels today.

The latest, and penultimate, Persephone reprint of a Whipple is Because Of The Lockwoods, which follows Dorothy’s formula to the letter and with glorious success.

Our heroine Thea is the youngest daughter of the Hunter family, who sadly lost their father far too young and his death plunged them into relative poverty. They were patronised and pitied by the loathsome Lockwood family, who indulged the Hunters with contemptuous charity… thereby fostering growing hatred towards them by the Hunters, especially Thea.

In the classic Dorothy Whipple style, our heroine is served a great injustice by the hands of a seemingly powerful man, Mr Lockwood… and the book is spent with her resolving to wreak her revenge, see justice done and ultimately emerge the victor. It’s giving nothing away to say that Thea does just this… and in delicious fashion.

Because Of The Lockwoods takes us on a lengthy, but thoroughly enjoyable, journey from outer Manchester to rural France and back again. As with most Dorothy Whipple books, this is a real doorstopper of a book; chunky and weighty. But as with all Dorothy Whipple books, this is also a deeply enjoyable, page-turner of a hotwater bottle book.

I first read this book several years ago during a summer heatwave in a Somerset garden, and although I generally try not to read a book twice (if you’ve got time to read one book twice, you’ve got time to read two books – is my rule of thumb), Because Of The Lockwoods was equally, if not more so, delicious the second time.

Revenge, as Thea finds, is a dish best served cold (with a wintry reading).