‘Classy Modern Gothic Leaves a Lingering Chill’

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne

Reviewed by Carolyn Percy

Eleanor and Richard, a couple with two young daughters, desperate to get on the property ladder, have just bought a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London.

It is the house that Richard in particular hopes could one day be their Pinterest-perfect dream home.

But all isn’t as it should be: the atmosphere is oppressive, the dark colours and old furniture feeling like more than just unfortunate decorating choices. And then there’s the upstairs room, whose white walls are covered in scribble, a name, repeated over and over: Emily. Eleanor is unnerved, but they’ve already stretched themselves to the financial limit to buy the house.

They’re stuck. Forced to rent out the basement flat, enter Zoe, a young woman with problems of her own but who also soon begins to wonder whether there’s something wrong with the house, particularly as Emily’s signature starts to appear everywhere.

The Upstairs Room is the debut novel by British author Kate Murray-Browne (a freelance editor who previously worked at Faber & Faber for ten years and was one of Picador’s “new voices” for 2017).

Her novel has been described as a “property horror story”. And, as anyone who’s bought a house or seen more than a few episodes of shows like Homes Under the Hammer knows, there are arguably few things more horrific than the housing market, particularly in London: inherent stress and all of those  potential horrors hidden beneath the wallpaper to go with it.

This is a wonderful modern gothic in the vein of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in that you’re never quite sure whether the problems are with the house or with the people.

Eleanor begins to feel increasingly ill, symptoms that are only relieved when she’s not in the house.

At the same time, Rosie, their oldest daughter begins acting out, displaying behaviour she never has before. Is it just the stress of moving into a new environment on top or is the house having some sort of nefarious effect on both Eleanor and her daughter? Zoe starts experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis, where she thinks she glimpses a little girl. Is it just the physical manifestation of the stresses of her relationship problems and living in a rather gloomy basement flat, or is there really a presence? Richard finds himself becoming preoccupied with Zoe. Is it just a stereotypical mid-life crisis, or something else?

Like The Turn of the Screw, this novel also refuses to give definitive answers, providing evidence for both theories. The characters’ problems could easily have psychological causes, but odd things continue to happen: Emily’s signature starts to appear everywhere; the upstairs room continues to make everyone inexplicably uncomfortable; Eleanor uncovers some strange parallels in the story of the people who lived in the house before them and an appointment of a psychic goes very wrong.

However, for all the unanswered questions, the ending proves to be an immensely satisfying one.  It provides closure to the characters’ stories, so it’s not an open ending, but the last few paragraphs deliver a sharp sting in the tail that leaves a lingering chill.

*The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne is published in paperback by Pan Macmillan, price £8.99

Carolyn Percy has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Newport University and a Master’s in Creative Writing  from Swansea University. She is a regular contributor of articles and reviews to Wales Arts Review. 

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