Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.
The Upstairs Room is the debut novel from Kate Murray-Browne, a former editor at Faber. Published by Picador, this novel is billed as ‘a modern day ghost story for the contemporary housing crisis’.
A family of four – Eleanor, Richard and their two daughters Rosie and Isobel – move into an old Victorian house in London, pushing themselves to the edge of their disposable income to manage the mortgage. To support themselves, they take on a lodger, Zoe. Not long after they have moved into the house, the reservations that Eleanor pushed to the back of her mind when they first viewed rear their heads. From the unnerving upstairs room, covered in the spidery and scrawling scribbles of Emily, who covered the walls with faces, birds and her own name; to the indescribable way things move around the house; and her growing belief that the house is making her ill; Eleanor is convinced that they are not alone.
The Upstairs Room is billed as a ghost story; but it’s not in the traditional sense. I found this more to be a book about the housing crisis and its effects on people’s lives than ghosts and ghouls – but, let’s be honest, housing in itself is chilling enough. Eleanor and Richard have spent so much to buy the house that they cannot even consider moving on, completely trapped in their current situation – whether they are happy with it or not.
The main characters are all haunted by the people they used to be, and the paths they have taken in life to bring them to this point. Zoe, recently split from a long-term partner, is at a crossroads. Eleanor and Richard are each wondering, individually, if their lives are what they should be.
The Upstairs Room is subtly chilling – each of the characters is isolated from the others, hiding thoughts from the others and from themselves. The way that the characters interact with, and have an effect on, each other contributes to more of the story than any particular ‘thriller’ element. Parts of the book definitely channel the supernatural, but I found these to be more of an aside than the focus of the story.
The friction between Eleanor and Richard progresses through the book – he is dismissive and disbelieving of her suggestions that something in the house is making her ill. He suggests she is overreacting, but he is also hiding his own doubts. The question hangs in the sickly, claustrophobic air of the upstairs room – just what, exactly, is going on?
If you are looking for a full-on, truly terrifying, traditional ghost story, you are not going to find that here. However, if you’re reading this as a millennial, struggling to fight your way onto the housing market and facing a quarter-life crisis, I think you’ll enjoy this! Additionally, I have to say that I think location plays a key part in the interpretation of this book. I read it in the house I have lived in for the last 3 and a half years – it’s familiar, and comfortable, and home. If I had read this having just moved in, my reaction might have been a little different…..
The Upstairs Room is published by Picador on Thursday 27th July. Thanks to NetGalley and Picador for the ARC!