Like Zoe, one third of the protagonists of The Upstairs Room, I don’t believe in ghosts, but do ‘believe in them enough to want to leave them alone.’ For this reason, novels about the supernatural tend to be something I steer clear of. Yet I devoured Kate Murray-Browne’s new book in less than twenty four hours. Because it’s not really about ghosts. Sure, they are there (spoiler alert), but the real emotion comes from the relationships in the book and the disturbing home truths that linger.
The poignancy in the relationships comes across best when we discover the way that they began, and the reasons they have maintained. Eleanor and Richard are not actually be meant to be, and they both know it, but life happens and change is hard. Zoe almost got married to her childhood sweetheart, and has been tormented by the fact she didn’t, until her mum points out four years later that ‘just not wanting to is enough.’ We’re so indoctrinated to believe that marriage is the route to go down that we forget about things like emotions and needs.
Obsession is rife in this book. Eleanor trying to find out the answer to her mystery illness that only comes on in the house and feels ‘a thick black liquid crashing at the sides of her head as she threw up in the wastepaper basket.’ Richard’s unhealthy fixation on Zoe, his desire to achieve his MA as he feels ‘floored by the terror of not making any impact on the world.’ Zoe’s lust for Adam, an artist she’s dating. It’s a thread that pulses hard.
The impact of gentrification and the London property market madness is clear. Eleanor and Richard Harding are a pleasant couple with two small daughters. Eleanor works in publishing, Richard is a lawyer and studying for a Masters. Yet they can only just about afford to buy an old house in fashionable London Fields, and it stretches them to the hilt. Crazy. Zoe is nearly thirty, and has to rent a basement in the house, because she has no hope of being able to afford her own home. More lunacy.
The plot is tight, and information only revealed when necessary. Murray-Browne is an editor, so knows her stuff. Lucid prose and compelling narrative drive what could be a standard ghost story into a psychological drama. The Upstairs Room is not scary, but unsettling – the worst kind of fear. Ghosts in the upstairs bedrooms and ghosts in the personal closets – I’m not sure which scares me the most.
Out now on Pan McMillan.