Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling

charlotte markhamThe Short Version: Charlotte Markham, young widow, arrives at Everton to take over as governess for the motherless Darrow boys.  But after a grisly murder, she ends up their nanny as well – and on a casual stroll into the woods one day, she and the boys discover another world where it’s eternally night… and their mother is still alive.  But there’s a larger struggle occuring – one between Charlotte and forces that have haunted her for her entire life – and that struggle will potentially take everything Charlotte has come to love about Everton.

The Review: The history runs deep here.  This is a book that – purposefully, I think – calls to mind Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Coraline (just to start with).  It is a capital-G Gothic mystery, but one that’s written from a modern perspective. It is consciously Gothic.  Personally, I like that – although the awareness was a little bit irritating at times – but your own feeling towards the Gothic will determine whether or not you like this novel.

It’s beautifully written.  The author blurb tells me that Boccacino is a poet by trade and you can tell: the language is just dripping with beauty (for at least the first two thirds).  The descriptions are magical, even lyrical at times.  The 18th Century (ish) English country setting is evoked as clearly as a film and Boccacino’s gift with language allows the strange universe of The Ending to come alive just as crisply.  It’s rare, even amongst the best fantasy writers, to be able to pull that sort of detail out of an idea – because it’s always difficult to describe something imaginative, something that doesn’t have a basis in actual reality.  Boccacino pulls it off though – and the best analogy I can give is to Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Coraline is clearly an inspiration here – and I’d argue that it’s almost a little too much, for some reason, even though it’s only similar in the sense of a nighttime other universe that’s creepy.  But Gaiman’s ease with language is echoed by Boccacino and it’s never a bad thing to echo Neil Gaiman. Similarly, there’s a bit of Henry James to the whole thing – although, again, it’s only in the inspiration.  But I’ve already said that.

I’m having a little bit of trouble articulating my feelings about the novel because, as I finished it this morning, I had a distinct sense of missing something but not being sure quite what that something was.  There’s a conclusion to the novel – one I found satsifying, for sure, but one that doesn’t tie everything up (I hope there isn’t a sequel, to be honest, although I fear there will be).  There are strong character developments, a crazy third act… I guess really it was just a little too predictable, though.  SPOILERS a-comin’….

Example: when Charlotte realized that she had feelings for Henry and reacted against them in the predictable manner before giving in to them, I was totally unsurprised.  It felt too predictable.  Same with the late reveal that Mr. Whatley was not, perhaps, the Big Bad after all.  And the actual deus ex machina at the end was, while a lovely image, a little too trite for my tastes.  It also owed a bit to Discworld in a way that bugged me – Death, as a figure, can only play humorously in certain circumstances.  It was, perhaps, a little unfocused when compared to the rest of the novel.  A little too much on the horror scale, lending to a far larger world than the one we were exposed to.  And that’s what scares me about the potentiality of a sequel.  This book was so wonderfully contained – so autumnally contained – and the last third of the novel pushed it out a little too much.  I’m not saying I’m opposed to a sequel but why couldn’t this have just existed as it is?

Anyway, that’s really a relatively minor disappointment.  I was most surprised, I think, by the way grief is treated in the novel.  How delicately, how beautifully.  It reminded me (and bear with me here) of scenes from early-career M. Night Shyamalan films.  Bruce Willis smashing the glass in The Sixth Sense or Mel Gibson and Abigail Breslin in the “monster outside my room” scene in Signs.  Those quiet moments where you aren’t entirely sure what to say or how to say it and they’re a little messy and a little uncomfortable because how can you put those impossible emotions into a tidy sentence?  Watching Charlotte, still hurting herself, try to help the Darrow boys (Henry included) is, in and of itself, enough to fill a novel.  And much like Gaiman does with a child feeling unloved in Coraline, Boccacino uses the mysterious other world to show exactly why we need hardship and adversity in our lives: because how, then, could we ever grow?  It’s a simple concept but how often is it mangled in the execution?  Not here.  Here, it’s told with the poise and beauty of a much more accomplished writer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  The first 240 pages or so get five stars.  I can’t stress that enough.  Picture your ideal autumn morning, early November-style – and think about the kind of novel you’d like to read on that day.  This is it, this is one of those novels.  And while the ending is a little untidy, a little predictable, a little too rushed even, it’s still written with a grace of language that makes me aspire to greater things in my own writing.  This review notwithstanding.  I look forward to what Boccacino does next with great anticipation – I just hope it’s something new (and not another Charlotte Markham novel).

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