When a young woman wakes up from a coma after suffering a terrible accident, she is told her name is Kate Vavasour but Kate is convinced she is someone else. As Kate continues to experience flashbacks to a time and place she doesn’t belong, she eventually realises the memories belong to Isabel Vavasour, a young wife and mother who lived at Askerby Hall during the Tudor period.
Before her accident, Kate was doing research on the Vavasour line for the new visitor’s centre at Askerby Hall and Isabel seems to want something from Kate. Kate has to keep Isabel a secret though as her family are already suspicious Kate’s obsessive research coupled with grief over the death of her husband led to a suicide attempt but as Isabel’s memories become ever more intrusive, Kate realises she needs help but who can she trust?
House of Shadows is Pamela Hartshorne’s fourth novel with the familiar time-slip premise which has featured in all her novels to date and therein lies the problem because you’ve read it all before. As Kate struggles to remember her own life in the present and starts experiencing Isabel’s memories, everything is strange and terrifying for her but we already know what’s going on so the dramatic tension is immediately lost. In the same way, when Kate returns to Askerby Hall to recuperate, the fact her own child and her devoted pet dog shy away from her also doesn’t come as a surprise.
In fact, the word predictable is a good way to describe the entire novel as the mystery at the heart of it is ruined since it is so easy to work out. While Kate has the excuse of memory loss to befuddle her mind, Isabel is supposed to be an intelligent woman, yet she is oblivious to what is going on under her nose and the longer she is blind to the deceit, the more irritating it becomes to read. You never feel Kate is in any real danger from Isabel from the way she is described and the author isn’t entirely clear about what happens to Isabel’s family after her death. We are told Isabel won’t rest until she is reunited with her son, Kit, but since he went on to inherit Askerby Hall as expected, there is no explanation as to why Isabel thinks he is lost to her in the first place. The whereabouts of Kit isn’t really such a mystery as he is easy to find in the shamble of records and once Kate has him moved to the chapel at Askerby Hall, Isabel seems to find peace at last.
While Hartshorne is good with her historical passages, she isn’t quite so good at exploiting the setting to add to the overall ambience. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by reading so many Daphne du Maurier novels but when Kate describes how sinister Askerby Hall seems to her when she comes home, I just never felt it which is unfortunate. To me, the tone of the book was generally very mild and there was certainly nothing gothic about it.