In 1919, Kitty Weekes, pretty, resourceful, and on the run, falsifies her background to obtain a nursing position at Portis House, a remote hospital for soldiers left shell-shocked by the horrors of the Great War. Hiding the shame of their mental instability in what was once a magnificent private estate, the patients suffer from nervous attacks and tormenting dreams. But something more is going on at Portis House—its plaster is crumbling, its plumbing makes eerie noises, and strange breaths of cold waft through the empty rooms. It’s known that the former occupants left abruptly, but where did they go? And why do the patients all seem to share the same nightmare, one so horrific that they dare not speak of it?
Kitty finds a dangerous ally in Jack Yates, an inmate who may be a war hero, a madman… or maybe both. But even as Kitty and Jack create a secret, intimate alliance to uncover the truth, disturbing revelations suggest the presence of powerful spectral forces. And when a medical catastrophe leaves them even more isolated, they must battle the menace on their own, caught in the heart of a mystery that could destroy them both.
Rating: Narration: A, Content:A-
Simone St. James seems to be almost single-handedly revitalising the genre of the gothic historical romance, and her latest book, Silence for the Dead proved to be a very enjoyable example indeed.
It’s 1919, and twenty-year-old Kitty Weeks has been running away from her abusive father for the past four years. That means going from job to job, often under assumed names, and never staying in one place too long. She’s gutsy and independent, and even though she can never completely shake them off, she refuses to allow her past experiences to beat her down. Her latest position, in the wilds of the north of England, is as a nurse at Portis House, an imposing mansion-turned-asylum for men suffering from shell-shock. She’s not a nurse, of course, but she needs the job and wants to be somewhere she’ll be difficult to find. With falsified references of her previous experience at a London hospital, Kitty blags her way in.
The work is arduous and the days are long, as the place is terribly understaffed, but Kitty soon gets into the swing of things. Her lack of real nursing qualifications does not hinder her, and she quickly strikes up friendships with two of her fellow nurses, Martha and Nina. They gossip together and moan about sore feet and matron’s edicts. I really enjoyed the dynamics of their relationship.
An element of mystery is introduced when Kitty hears about the enigmatic “Patient Sixteen,” who never comes out of his room and whom, she discovers, one has to have special clearance to visit. Being one to take the opportunity to flout the rules, Kitty manages to meet him – and is astonished by what she discovers.
The author gradually builds a sense of menace. We hear about strange noises, the patients’ nightmares, and ghostly apparitions. There is clearly some sort of corruption going on which involves the visiting doctors and the house’s owner. There are also questions surrounding the treatment (or rather, non-treatment) of the patients at Portis House and speculation as to why the previous owners disappeared so suddenly. Bumps in the night, a patient who shouldn’t be there, possible conspiracies… Ms. St. James develops and intertwines her plot threads very cleverly, and I was utterly engrossed in the story from start to finish.
Speaking as someone who has a particular interest in the history of First World War, I found the setting (a mental institution for soldiers suffering from shell-shock) to be the novel’s true strength. Ms St. James has clearly done her homework on the way these men were viewed, treated, and so badly misunderstood: returned from one horror only to be plunged into another. Removed from family and friends and branded insane, they were locked away like criminals. All of them are well-rounded, engaging characters, and she skillfully evokes sympathy for their situations.
The writing and pacing of the story are excellent. The action begins very slowly in the sense that the supernatural element is not introduced until we’re well into the book, but I was so caught up in the relationships between Kitty and the other nurses, the stories of the various patients, and speculating as to the identity of “Patient Sixteen” that I never had that feeling of wanting things to get moving. I was happy to savour it all. I loved that the author takes her time establishing her characters and setting. I found her exploration of the way in which the men at Portis House were treated to be both informative and poignant. Ms. St. James has created such a fascinating set of characters and backstories, and established so well the conflicts between them, that the ‘gothic’ element was almost surplus to requirements! I would have been quite happy had the story been a straight mystery.
I’ve read a few reviews stating that the story seemed to lose impetus in the second half, but I disagree. I found myself just as riveted by the later part of the story as the beginning, which is in no small part due to the superb performance given by Mary Jane Wells. Ms Wells is a new-to-me narrator, but she has guaranteed herself a place on my “narrators to trust” list based on this performance alone.
Ms Wells’ narration is well-paced and the character voices are sufficiently distinct in tone that there was never any question as to whether I was listening to speech or description. She has a pleasant, youthful-sounding voice, used to very good effect in her interpretation of Kitty, the chipper, cockney heroine. Dedicated, optimistic Martha is given a perfectly executed Scottish accent, and laconic, wry Nina has a lower-pitched, northern-accented drawl which suited her sardonic nature very well indeed. The male patients and orderlies are all clearly differentiated, too. Paulus, the head orderly, is South African, and Ms. Wells’ accent is (mostly) spot on. Captain Mabry is given the slightly clipped tones one would expect from an officer, and she does a superb job with Archie, who has an unusual stammer. She adopts a slightly lower pitch to portray Jack, who, like Mabry, is often quite softly-spoken. Yet she also impeccably conveys his underlying sense of authority and cheeky insouciance as the story progresses.
There are a few glaring Americanisms in the text. Closets instead of cupboards, suspenders instead of braces (believe me, the image of a man wearing what we call suspenders is not a particularly attractive or masculine one!) and an odd pronunciation of Passchendaele stuck out like sore thumbs, but these were very minor irritations.
All in all, Silence for the Dead is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. The highlights for me are the setting and the stories and characterisation of the patients, but the principal story and narration are superb, too. I have no hesitation in recommending it very highly indeed.