Book review: The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

Katherine Howe had a real problem on her hands when she basked in the glow from her dazzling debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane... it was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Fortunately, her writing has lost none of its magic; The House of Velvet and Glass, an absorbing and atmospheric historical novel, retains that sense of mesmerising wonderment which earned the author so much critical acclaim three years ago.

Her debut examined the thorny issue of Salem witchcraft, and this time Howe sets her discerning sights on spiritualism and the long shadow cast by the sinking of the Titanic.

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Subtle, sophisticated and written with Howe’s trademark elegance, this richly dramatic story of a young Boston woman’s desperate attempt to connect with the mother and sister she lost in the 1912 disaster melds history and romance with frissons of thrilling fantasy.

Multi-faceted themes of mother/daughter relationships and a country on the cusp of war and change jostle with the battles between science and the supernatural, freewill and fate.

Three years after the Titanic sank, Sibyl Allston, who comes from a wealthy Boston family, is still haunted by the deaths of her mother and sister while what is left of her family drifts apart.

Her father Lan Allston, a man mysteriously silent about his personal history, is wrapped up in his shipping business and her dissipated brother Harley, a student at Harvard, has been sent down and is now living at home with Dovie Whistler, a less-than-respectable actress.

Hoping to heal her wounded heart and obtain reassurance that her mother’s spirit is at peace, Sibyl seeks solace in the parlour of medium Mrs Dee who promises to contact her lost loved ones.

But, under the guidance of Dovie, Sibyl is introduced to the opium dens of Boston’s Chinatown and finds herself drawn into a strange new world where she can never be sure that what she sees or hears is real.

In fear and desperation, she turns to Harvard psychology professor Benton Jones despite the unspoken tensions of their shared past. He is determined to help Sibyl by revealing that Mrs Dee is a fraud but Sibyl is now convinced she has the gift of ‘sight.’

Sybil and Benton are drawn into a world of occult magic, of truth and lies, and into a race to understand Sibyl’s own apparent talent for ‘scrying’ before it is too late. Because looking into the past and discovering what will happen in the future might be a curse rather than a gift...

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Howe’s harrowing but enthralling story seduces with its meticulous research, elements of dark danger and suspense, compelling themes and breathtaking twist in the tail.

A seriously good book from a seriously good writer...

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)