viernes, 10 de enero de 2014

The Room Beyond by Stephanie Elmas

The Room Beyond by Stephanie Elmas is a ghost story. When Serena arrives in Marguerite Avenue to apply for a job, she is intrigued to find as she walks the street that next door to number 32 in number 36.  Strangely, number 34 does not seem to exist. A mere curiosity, perhaps?

Also a curiosity is the job that Serena is seeking. She is applying to be the nanny, the companion, the teacher or perhaps the partner in crime of Beth who, Stephanie Elmas tells us, is just four years old. This little girl is rather odd. She has only just graduated from toddler status, but throughout the tale she seems to display the maturity, vocabulary and sensibility of middle age, let alone precocious adulthood. Serena is intrigued from the start by the origins of this little girl, and she does not believe everything she is told.

Beth’s apparent wisdom beyond her years may test some readers’ ability to suspend belief. But there are rewards for those who do, because The Room Beyond becomes an engaging read, not least because Author Stephanie Elmas’s style is always lucid and clear, and yet can offer a telling turn of phrase. When books include a child as a principal character, writers tend to use the implied innocence as a vehicle for delivering statements that no-one else dare say, or noting observations that the mere conventional either miss or fear. Mercifully, Stephanie Elmas just avoids over-using Beth’s child status, though she remains very much at the centre of the developing story.

A time shift takes us back to 1892, to a time when number 34 Marguerite Avenue definitely did exist. We get to know the Whitestones and the Edens, Mrs Hubbard who cooks and several characters, Miranda, Lucinda, Tristan and Alfonso included, whose lives become intimately intertwined. There is intrigue in this street, where much goes on behind the curtained windows.

Back in the present day Marguerite Avenue, Serena gets the live-in job offered by the Hartreve family and thus enters the household to get to know little Beth, whose hidden origins immediately interest the new nanny. Then there is a discovery that Eva, a morose teenager, knows much about the toddler’s birth and is partially willing to talk. Eva’s revelations ought to be momentous, but Serena takes them in her stride, a response we soon begin to associate with her. Eva is a strange, waif-like, almost ghostly youngster, but we hardly ever seem to get to know her as she drifts in and out of the story.

The character of Serena, the modern-day narrator, is intriguing. She’s an injured young woman. She lost her parents in a road accident. She herself is scarred and harbours a morbid fear of glass. Even more intriguing about Serena is her rather unpredictable impetuosity. When she feels an urge, she gives its expression free reign and, throughout, she displays an almost rampant sexuality that simply will not give “no” as an answer. Serena meets a number of possible liaisons and, when the fancy takes her, liaises. One particular encounter gives rise to something that develops like an obsession for Serena, who as a result becomes ever more obsessed with the non-existence of the house next door. Who might have lived there, and for what reasons it might have been removed from history? Perhaps it still exists. Perhaps we merely convince ourselves that it’s not there. And if all of this is not enough, we have another character who paints black paintings that hang in a house full of eccentrics!

Back at the end of the nineteenth century, there is yet another strange figure. Walter Balanchine is part tramp, part wizard, part psycho-analyst, part éminence-grise. He wanders in and out of the story, leaving enigma and mystery wherever he treads. Like the present-day Beth, he seems to appear whenever something more than the expected might transpire.


Overall, The Room Beyond is a satisfying, but un-demanding read. With so many characters, two time periods and several settings, we could never expect to reach an end where all the ideas are worked out, all the loose ends tied up. Stephanie Elmas’s style remains a delight and so the text always flows past and through its events with ease. But by the end, for this to be fiction of its genre, there may be rather too little tension, alongside too little of interest to excite literary interest. But The Room Beyond does present an interesting, engaging tale that is well told. Stephanie Elmas, herself, cites a debt to Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who wrote mysterious, eye-popping works that sent middle-class housewives flying to the bookshops. The Room Beyond hopes to emulate this success by presenting a new gothic Victorian sensation drama, but with the present day entwined within. Via the character of Serena, Stephanie Elmas may well have achieved her goal.

One On One by Philip Spires is now available

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