When I discovered a copy of Fran Cooper’s new novel the other week, I couldn’t believe my luck. You might remember that I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, These Dividing Walls, a compassionate story of tensions within the walls of a Parisian apartment block. Her new novel is of a different stripe: a tale of Londoners Jay and Simon, whose dream holiday home in Yorkshire turns out to have unexpected baggage. The aptly-named Two Houses used to be one building, but its central rooms were cut out, levelled to the ground after the tragic death of its former owner’s wife, and rumoured to have housed a ghostly presence. From the moment she arrives, Jay feels a strange rapport with the unloved building, but she and Simon will discover that the villagers take a grim view of the new arrivals, and that Two Houses has yet to give up all its dark secrets…
It all starts because acclaimed ceramicist Jay loses her spark. When one of her major pieces cracks during firing in the run-up to a major exhibition, it represents the final straw. Overwhelmed by her work, by her life in London, by the noise, the demands and the need to create, Jay takes to her bed for one long, painful summer. When she resurfaces, her husband Simon has a plan: to escape. They’ll find a holiday home where she can recuperate and regain her love of life. And so they set out in search of the perfect property – which turns out, oddly enough, to be a crumbling place called Two Houses. Literally two houses side by side – separated by a gap where their lost rooms once joined them – the place is steeped in local folklore. As the renovations begin, Jay and Simon realise that they’re far from welcome in the local village. Reactions range from the suspicious to the downright hostile. What are the villagers afraid of?
A clue comes in the form of a shocking discovery, made during excavations: bones, worn away by the passage of years. Is this the body of the lovely Isobel Brathwane, whose ghost is said to haunt Two Houses? The local police seem stumped by this ‘historic case’, but Jay feels that something isn’t quite right. The police are locals too. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence around Two Houses. What is there to hide? And who wants it to be hidden? As her obsession with the house and its history deepens, she sets out to investigate its past, watched with distrust by the villagers: Tom, the taciturn owner of the only pub; brittle, disappointed Angela, whose hopes have curdled into spite; and elderly Heather, who can see the past being raked up again.
Alongside the main mystery, Cooper brings in other themes: the stagnant economy in parts of the country which formerly relied on mining and manufacturing, and the loss of hope in such communities, which have been abandoned to fend for themselves. It’s difficult to date the action precisely, but Cooper writes about a period of destructive flooding which threatens the village’s bridge, and so I thought it could be an allusion to the terrible floods in Yorkshire in 2007. But she also homes in on more intimate issues, such as the way that mental health can affect a marriage, and how going through a rocky patch can make people other than our spouses look suddenly very appealing. Needless to say, all is woven together very well, never detracting from the main thrust of the story, and building up an entirely plausible story of this struggling, defiant, angry little village and its unspoken history.
The second book is the most difficult: that’s what everyone says. And so it’s remarkable that Cooper has created something even more enjoyable (for me) than her debut. The Two Houses confirms her as an acutely sensitive writer, alert to the social dynamics simmering under the surface of forgotten places. As in These Dividing Walls, she takes deeply unpleasant types of people – racists, in particular – and delves into what makes them who they are; into the troubles and fears that have withered into a hatred of their fellow man. But, in this particular book, she is also adept at showing the close ties that people have in this kind of small village, where for generations everyone has known everyone else, and where those who remain are in a kind of brotherhood of suffering. It’s a fine blend of engaging storytelling and deeply humane characterisation, as well as being a jolly compelling mystery.
Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what Cooper comes up with next. I’m rather in awe of her, as she manages to be both a museum curator and a novelist in her free time. Definitely a role model to follow, if only I could figure out how!