England, 1921. Three years after her husband, Alex, disappeared, shot down over Germany, Jo Manders still mourns his loss. Working as a paid companion to Alex’s wealthy, condescending aunt, Dottie Forsyth, Jo travels to the family’s estate in the Sussex countryside. But there is much she never knew about her husband’s origins…and the revelation of a mysterious death in the Forsyths’ past is just the beginning…
All is not well at Wych Elm House. Dottie’s husband is distant, and her son was grievously injured in the war. Footsteps follow Jo down empty halls, and items in her bedroom are eerily rearranged. The locals say the family is cursed, and that a ghost in the woods has never rested. And when Jo discovers her husband’s darkest secrets, she wonders if she ever really knew him. Isolated in a place of deception and grief, she must find the truth or lose herself forever.
And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House…
Simone St. James may only have five published novels to her name (so far) but I was so taken with her very first book – The Haunting of Maddy Clare – that she pretty much immediately became an auto-buy author. In recent years, she has brilliantly revitalised the historical/gothic mystery, producing superbly-written, well-crafted and spine-tingling stories that have often kept me reading until well past my bedtime!
Lost Among the Living is set in 1921 and as the book opens, we meet Jo Manders, a young widow whose husband, Alex, was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His plane was shot down in 1918, but his body was never found, meaning that Jo is not officially a widow and is therefore unable to claim a widow’s pension. With no other means of supporting herself and her mother – who is mentally ill and lives in an asylum – Jo has found employment as companion to Alex’s wealthy, aristocratic aunt, Dottie Forsyth. Dottie is opinionated, demanding and often rude, so working for her is no picnic, but she is also Jo’s one last link to Alex, so Jo sticks it out.
Jo’s assignment with Dottie was only supposed to last for the few months Dottie spent touring the Continent buying art from people and families driven to financial ruin by the war, so she is surprised when Dottie asks her to accompany her back to England. On arriving at Wych Elm House, however, Jo begins to question her decision. The house is a desolate place that is permeated by an atmosphere of grief and loss; the local villagers whisper about mysterious deaths that happened before the war and vicious ghosts roaming the woods; Dottie’s husband is a coldly calculating, raffish womaniser, their son, Martin, has returned from the war an invalid who seems headed for an early demise, and their daughter, Frances, died in mysterious circumstances. But the more Jo learns about that past tragedy, the more determined she is to discover the truth behind it, refusing to be intimidated by the footsteps that follow her or by the stories that circulate about a mysterious beast roaming the woods.
And on top of all this comes Jo’s dawning realisation about how little she knew about the man she married; she hadn’t known that Wych Elm House had been Alex’s home or that he had grown up with Dottie’s children… and certainly hadn’t known he visited the house on his last leave before he was shot down.
Lost Among the Living is a great blend of ghost story, mystery and romance, and the writing is superb. Ms St. James is a master at creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty, and her descriptive prose is often beautiful:
To my right and left, the roof of Wych Elm House fell away, as if I were the mermaid on the prow of a ship, sailing into the woods. Before me spread the tops of the trees, the closest ones visibly rippling and shimmering in the wind, the father ones mere ribbons of black and pewter and dusky silver, blending into a mass that spread for miles.
But while I enjoyed the book overall, there are a couple of things about it that didn’t work for me, and which prevented my rating it more highly. First of all, there is a massive spoiler in the publisher’s blurb which kind of skewed my reading of it. It’s difficult to describe without giving too much away, but the blurb says this: And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House. I was 99.9% certain I knew who this person was going to be, and as a consequence, I got frustrated when he failed to appear until around the final third of the book. Would I have read the book differently had I not read that spoiler? It’s difficult to say, but there are enough pointers towards this event in the book itself to have made it likely that I wouldn’t. My other big issue with the story was the rapidity with which Jo accepted the presence of the ghost and knew immediately who it was. To me, it felt as though the author was taking a bit of a short-cut; readers know what to expect from her books, they will be quick to accept the presence of a ghost and so Jo accepts it quickly, too.
But even with those reservations, Lost Among the Living is an intriguing and beautifully-written story in which the tension leaps off the page and the characters are complex and interesting. It isn’t my favourite of Ms. St. James’ books (that would be The Other Side of Midnight), but it’s certainly well worth reading if you enjoy mysteries and ghost stories with a touch of romance.