Swedish ghost story needs no cobwebs or creaking doors to keep you turning the pages [Review]

Swedish ghost story needs no cobwebs or creaking doors to keep you turning the pages [Review]

Tense atmosphere mounts up in this intriguing ‘haunted house’ mystery

A House Without Mirrors
By Mårten Sandén
Published by Pushkin Children’s Books
ISBN 978 1 78269 121 1

Mårten Sandén is one of Sweden’s bestselling children’s writers. Now translated into English, his evocative ghost story is set to reach a wider readership, which it thoroughly deserves.

This is one of those rare “read in one sitting” novels because it is impossible to put down after the gripping opening sequence. Is it a ghost story? Is it a tale of love, growing up and grief? Readers will have to make up their own minds. Perhaps it is so good that it’s impossible to label.

Thomasine, the 11-year-old narrator, has spent months living in her great-aunt’s dusty, dark mansion with her father, aunt, uncle and cousins. Great-aunt Henrietta is dying in an upstairs bedroom, and her relatives have gathered to “look after her” in her final weeks. But all the adults seem to do is quarrel about how much they will get for the house when they sell it.

Thomasine and her father are also dealing with their own tragedy, the death of Thomasine’s little brother. Great-aunt Henrietta’s house is not the happiest place at this moment. There is tension in every word that anyone says and in every move that they make. The children might not realise the cause of the grim atmosphere, but they feel it.

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Each adult member of the dysfunctional family has remarked that it’s odd that there are no mirrors in Henrietta’s house. Is there a reason for this? Probably the mystery will die with the old lady. It’s of no consequence. But one day, Signe, the youngest cousin, makes an intriguing discovery in one of the upstairs rooms.

The little girl finds a wardrobe full of all the mirrors from the rooms downstairs. She tells Thomasine about her discovery, and the two girls investigate further. To their amazement, they find they can pass through one of the mirrors back in time to the house as it used to be when Henrietta was growing up. And they soon meet Henrietta herself, who has quite a story to tell them.

The beginning of the book might sound a bit heavy, but the character of Thomasine is so cleverly built up by Sandén that readers of all ages will be drawn into her story. From the beginning, the characters of the children, the interplay of the adults waiting downstairs and the general air of mystery provide plenty to keep you turning the pages.

All the action takes place in the house in question, as the action in any effective “haunted house” mystery should. But there are no creaking doors or spooky cobwebs here. Sandén doesn’t need these to build up the tight-as-a-spring atmosphere.

A House Without Mirrors is cleverly written and intriguingly plotted. And its 170-odd pages pass as if time has stood still. Perhaps it has! This is a novel that will cast a gripping spell on anyone who reads it. Turn the lights down low and enjoy the power of good storytelling.

John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com


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