Emma Carroll’s ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ was another book my husband handed to me saying ‘this looks like your cup of tea’ as we were browsing in a bookshop, and once again he was bang on the money. I am beginning to think he should give up his day job and become a professional book-recommenderer, because he’s got an acute eye for it.
The book tells the story of Tilly Higgins, a girl living in a town named Frostcombe with her mother and sister Eliza in the year 1881. As the story begins, the three Higgins women are waiting for the return of the ‘man of the house’, Tilly and Eliza’s father, who has been away working for several weeks and is due home with his pay. Their rent needs to be paid, and their landlord is breathing down their necks, and Mr Higgins’ wages will save the roof over their heads – not to mention, of course, the fact that Tilly misses her father, and wants to see him. Then, a knock comes at their door – but it’s not Pa. It’s Will Potter, the local butcher’s son, who wants to call on Tilly.
After a bit of persuasion, Tilly leaves with Will. They find their way to the gates of Frost Hollow Hall, the local ‘great house’, home to a family named Barrington. He challenges her to a dare, and she accepts; before long, they find themselves skating on the frozen lake in the grounds of the Hall.
The same lake where, ten years before, the young son of the Barrington family drowned in a tragic accident.
Tilly skates too far from shore and the ice begins to give way. Before she can react, she is swallowed by the freezing water, and her heavy clothes weigh her down. Terrified, disoriented, panicking, she feels certain she is about to die – and then, a gentle-faced boy appears out of the depths and leads her to safety. A boy with the face of an angel.
Tilly comes to as Will is dragging her from the water, and she drops in and out of consciousness as he carries her to the Hall, where she is attended to and warmed up by the kitchen staff, whom – it turns out – Will knows quite well, as he and his father deliver meat there on a regular basis.
Tilly returns home, furious with Will, to find her father still absent, and her mother growing more and more worried by the hour. Her sister is talking of emigration, and her mother is taking in more and more mending work to make ends meet. Tilly’s own job doesn’t pay her much, and so when an opportunity arises to take up work at Frost Hollow Hall, Tilly grabs it with both hands. Her dreams are haunted by the vision of the beautiful young boy in the water, the one who saved her life – and, gradually, Tilly realises that the secret to his identity and his reasons for saving her are to be found somewhere within the Hall.
I enjoyed this book on lots of levels; its main plot, that of uncovering the story of the boy in the lake, is beautifully realised, but the book also deals delicately with Tilly and Will’s relationship, Tilly’s fraught co-existence with her family and her complicated feelings towards her father, the harsh realities of life in the late nineteenth century and the raw, heart-shredding nature of grief. It is, of course, a ghost story – there are several ghosts in this tale, and all of them have their own tales to tell – and the spine-chillingly scary bits (of which there are plenty!) sit wonderfully with the emotionally wrenching descriptions of Lord and Lady Barrington’s pain for their lost son, and the eerie way in which they’ve memorialised him in their home.
And – without giving away too much – I found it almost unbearably moving to compare the ways in which different characters are grieved for and remembered, and how huge a difference social class and status made in relation to the amount of sorrow that could be displayed. It was such a stark comment on the structure of society at the time, but it also had a larger relevance to the plot. Masterful work.
There was one slight detail near the end of the story which irked me, just a little; a character hides a very important item which has the power – or, so it is believed – to destroy their life, and realises that they have been spotted red-handed by another character, but they go ahead and hide the item in the place where they’ve been seen, anyway. It would have made more sense to hide it somewhere else, I felt, but perhaps there was a slight indication that the character wanted to be found out; that they wished, on some level, for an end to their secrecy. I also felt the end was slightly too ‘pat’ and neat, but at the same time I wouldn’t have ended it differently if I was the author, so I can’t really point to it as a fault.
These tiny quibbles didn’t take away at all from my enjoyment of the story, and I’d happily recommend ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ to anyone who likes period drama – for the detail, in terms of costumes and speech and social niceties and everything is pitch-perfect – and/or ghost stories, and/or tales of gentle romance. I am not much of a judge of ghost stories, as I scare easily (this one had the hair on the back of my neck standing right up, at various points, but it might not have that effect on everyone) but all I can say is this book was a winner, for me, in relation to plot, characterisation, language and setting, and it’s one of the best I’ve read this year so far.
I hope you’ll make some time this weekend to hunt down some words, and read ’em. Go on – just do it.