Let’s be honest, you can read a ghost story any time of the year, however, there’s something so delicious about settling down with a spooky tale as the nights become colder and longer, and Halloween approaches. One such tale I was looking forward to reading this spooky season is Anita Frank’s debut novel, The Lost Ones. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but gorgeous cover art like this will surely boost interest in the book. I would like to thank the book’s publishers, HQ for providing me with an advance copy of the novel. Did it live up to my expectations? Synopsis and spoiler free review below.
In 1917, Stella Marcham’s fiance, Gerald, has been killed in the conflict of the first world war. Shattered and consumed with her grief, Stella returns home from where she providing medical aid for those wounded in battle. Upon her return, her family try to help her overcome her grief. With her family’s patience tested and the threat of being institutionalised lurking beneath the surface, Stella is surprised by a visit from Hector, the brother-in-law she barely knows, requesting that she accompanies him back to his ancestral home, Greyswick, in order to soothe her sister’s nerves.
Stella accompanies him back to Greyswick with her maid Annie, much to the delight of her sister, Madeleine, and the chagrin of Lady Brightwell and the mysterious housekeeper, Mrs. Henge. Madeleine cannot settle and face the imminent prospect of raising her own child in the house due to the mysterious incidents that have occurred. Hector departs and the sisters are left alone in a strange house with with few friendly faces save for Lady Brightwell’s companion, Miss Scott and the cheerful Cook. As the mysterious incidents – crying in the night, footsteps on the stairs, toys left discarded – begin to pile up, Hector returns the the house having engaged the help of a wounded war veteran, Tristan Sheers, who seeks to debunk tales of hauntings and explain the explainable.
Stella vows to uncover the mystery at the heart of Greyswick, aided by Annie, and meeting opposition from certain people in the household (both dead and alive) who may have their own secrets to protect, and also who have many revelations to make. In uncovering the truth, Stella is not only hoping allay her sister’s fears but also to lay a few of her own ghosts to rest one way or another. However, with the question of Stella’s nerves and sanity hanging over the narrative, how reliable a narrator is she really?
The Lost Ones is a solid, if not spectacular, debut novel. Combining familiar tropes of ghost stories and Gothic fiction with war literature, it keeps you reading, but not always terribly invested in the events. Running at 451 pages, it’s a little bloated and despite the solid opening, it seems to take an eternity for anything to really happen. Whilst the events are mysterious, they’re not especially chilling and sometimes I found myself tiring of what seemed like a lack of movement in the plot in favour of an obsession on Madeleine and Stella’s part regarding something that wasn’t especially interesting and didn’t have much resolution (the toy soldiers). In spite of the intriguing setting (an ancestral home), there is never any sense of the sisters being trapped there or isolated and cut off from the world in the style of Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black or even the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca. Additionally, despite the pace picking up towards the end of the novel, the revelations at its conclusion got a little murky and it was hard to keep up with whose secret was whose, who hated/loved who, etc.
As a protagonist, Stella is a little bland. It’s the moments when her sanity is under question and scrutiny that she comes to life; Frank does an excellent job of portraying the dangers of being a woman in 1917, and of the terrors stemming from a lack of understanding regarding grief and mental health issues. It isn’t just the dangers faced by women from men, but also from other women which also come shockingly to light. Madeleine tried my patience a little bit and was ultimately nothing more than a device to kickstart the plot. Fortunately, there are characters who make for more interesting reading: the Mrs. Danvers-esque housekeeper, Mrs. Henge; the ostensibly genial companion Miss Scott; the acidic Lady Brightwell; the skeptical war veteran, Tristan; and of course, the enigmatic Annie who really doesn’t get enough time here. I felt they could have easily taken centre stage in their own tales, whether ghostly, Gothic, or War.
As a Gothic tale and ghost story, the novel builds on tried and tested tropes but sadly doesn’t offer anything original in this respect. The book is an interesting mix of many things (The Woman in White; The Woman in Black; Rebecca; The Yellow Wallpaper) but lacks its own voice and ideas. I actually felt that where the novel succeeded the most was during the moments which focused on the horror, reality, and impact of a war which is far more devastating, incomprehensible and frightening than any ghost story. In some ways, I was reminded of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Solider which examines soldiers returning from war, issues of shock and grief, and light shed on fraught relationships. The Lost Ones truly sparks to life when it examines the after effects of war, grief, shared experience during war, and, paradoxically, isolation through this same shared experience. This all links in deliciously with issues surrounding the mental health or sanity of those who suffer loss, and of those who can see things that others cannot. It’s just a shame more time was not dedicated to these issues.
Although the final showdown is a high intensity, action packed event, the type of which Frank has been teasing the reader with throughout, after this thrilling action comes a rather limp (and sometimes messy) ending that sees Stella lose interest in revealing the truth she has doggedly pursued throughout the narrative. This left me asking what was the point? The ending was also problematic for me due to the idea of vengeance on behalf of a particular character who I sincerely doubt would ever have had anything like that in mind. Whilst the mystery will intrigue you (most of the time), this is not a book which will chill you. Although it isn’t perfect Halloween reading, you could do worse than pick this one up during spooky season. A solid and engaging read which disarms you by unexpectedly exploring the tragedy of war, loss, and grief when you think you are reading a ghost story.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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