I read this as part of the Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge, now in its thirteenth year!
Looking for a ghost story for Halloween? This may not be the place to start. Kate Murray-Browne’s debut, The Upstairs Room, ultimately only hints obliquely towards the presence of a ghost rather than dealing directly with haunting, and so may not have been the most appropriate choice for the RIP Challenge. Nevertheless, its subtle horrors and disturbances are brilliantly thought-provoking in their own right, and I’m very glad that I read it.
The Upstairs Room starts in solid middle-class territory, picking up on plot threads that are familiar from any number of psychological thrillers. Eleanor and Richard have bought a run-down Victorian house in London, intended to be a ‘forever home’ for themselves and their two young daughters. Struggling with a huge mortgage, they let out the basement to a lodger in her late twenties, Zoe. Richard finds himself becoming increasingly intrigued by Zoe’s life, while Eleanor becomes ill and paranoid, worried about the behaviour of her oldest daughter, Rosie, and wishing that she could escape from the house. As a series of creepy things start happening, from scribbles on the walls to pebbles lined up in perfect rows, Eleanor’s fear only begins to deepen.
One of the things that raises The Upstairs Room above many books like it is its bite. The book is preoccupied with why we seek safety and security, even when it makes us unhappy, rather than taking a risk on the unknown, and explores this not only through Eleanor and Richard’s relationship but through the relationships of a number of secondary characters. Eleanor’s psychosomatic vomiting, which we first witness as a reaction to her haunted house but which turns out to have intermittently appeared throughout her life, serves as a symbol of how she ignores what her heart and body are telling her.
Nevertheless, Murray-Browne doesn’t slip into cliches about middle-class boredom versus bohemian artistic freedom, as a number of Zoe’s artist friends are shown to have made similarly uneasy compromises. Eleanor’s frustrations might be familiar, but Murray-Browne’s observations are always sharp: it’s hard to forget the moment when Richard tells the younger Eleanor, after meeting her in an English supervision at Cambridge, that ‘you’re good. I mean – not brilliant. But good,’ and Eleanor ‘felt as if he’d kissed her.’ Neverthless, the older Eleanor is hardly unaware of her own pain: when her best friend Amy tells her ‘I think you’ve forgotten how bad it is to be single,’ she replies ‘Perhaps you’ve forgotten how bad it is to be in a relationship.’
The Upstairs Room isn’t a spooky ghost story, but an unsettling exploration of how we create traps for ourselves within our own lives, and how these are far worse than owning an unpleasant, expensive house that can’t be sold. It reminded me of Harriet Lane’s two excellent literary thrillers, Alys, Always and Her, in the way it breathes new life into familiar stories. I’m very much looking forward to whatever Murray-Browne writes next.