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BENEATH THE STAIRS
by Jennifer Fawcett
Atria, February 2022
352 pages
$27.00
ISBN: 1982177152


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This book was a bit of a thriller, a bit of a romance, a bit of a ghost story, and a bit of a historical novel. It takes place in four main timeframes: the 1930s when the house at the center of the novel was built, the 1950s when a murder took place and the house was then abandoned, the 1990s when teenagers Clare and Abby enter the abandoned house to explore, and the present when it all comes together. Books that have a supernatural element, as this one did, can be deceiving so I kept wondering how much the events that happened in the incredibly creepy Octagon House were in fact supernatural and how much there was a hidden but plausible explanation. I read a lot of this book late at night, staying up well past the witching hour to finish it. There is an ominous atmosphere throughout, and the sinister presence in the basement of the house disturbed my sleep so much that I HAD to finish it or be up all night to get my answer.

There were many different threads to this story and it's not until about three quarters of the way through the book that a hint is dropped about how they might connect. The house was built by a local landholder for his new wife and her child, who never ended up living there. Then it was sold to a young family with two young children, and the wife and children were murdered in the basement. Years later, Clare and Abby visit the abandoned and supposedly haunted house on a dare, with Abby, in particular, coming away changed. In the present, Abby has been found in the basement of the house near death, a presumed suicide, and Clare has been called back to help her recover. Throughout, the house seems to exude an eerily threatening pull on the women who spend time there. There's a metal basement door that opens and closes on its own, sometimes becoming impossible to open, and this door plays a role in all timelines. By the end, most of the threads have been tied up, but enough remain to leave the reader with an ongoing sense of menace. This is the sort of ending I love, one that provides a satisfying resolution but nonetheless leaves room for speculation and thought. It is not, though, everyone's cup of tea.

The book is character-driven and, while those characters make maddening decisions, they are fitting for Abby's and Clare's age. What teenager does not engage in risky behavior? At the same time, Fawcett's descriptions of the house bring the reader right inside of it. The sights, sounds, and smells are all grippingly rendered, so that the book and the house both capture the reader in their creepiness. I would not recommend this book to readers who like a straightforward, straight-line narrative, nor to those who require all plotlines to be fully resolved. However, this debut novel is perfect for a reader who appreciates complex, interconnected story lines and a sense of possibility left at the end of a book. I can't wait to see what Fawcett will give us in her sophomore effort.

Sharon Mensing, retired educational leader, lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors in Arizona.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, May 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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