The Room Beyond by Stephanie Elmas is a ghost story. When Serena arrives in Marguerite Avenue to seek for a job, she is surprised to learn as she travels the block that next door to number 32 in number 36. Strangely, number 34 does not seem to exist. A mere curiosity, perhaps?
Serena’s employment search is also a source of intrigue. She is applying to be the nanny, the companion, the instructor or possibly the partner in crime of Beth who, Stephanie Elmas tells us, is barely four years old. This tiny girl is quite peculiar. She has only recently graduated from toddler status, but throughout the tale she seems to demonstrate the maturity, vocabulary and sensibility of middle age, let alone precocious adulthood. Serena is immediately captivated by this child’s background, and she does not accept all she is told.
Beth’s seeming intelligence beyond her years may test some readers’ capacity to suspend belief. But there are benefits for those who do, because The Room Beyond becomes an engaging read, not least because Author Stephanie Elmas’s writing is always lucid and clear, and yet can deliver a telling use of phrase. When works incorporate a child as a key character, writers prefer to exploit the supposed innocence as a vehicle for conveying comments that no-one else dare speak, or making things that the simply conventional either miss or dread. Thankfully, Stephanie Elmas avoids overusing Beth’s status as a child, but she stays at the center of the growing plot.
A time shift transports us back to 1892, when number 34 Marguerite Avenue unquestionably existed. The lives of various individuals, including Miranda, Lucinda, Tristan, and Alfonso, entwine. This street is filled with intrigue, as much occurs behind the draped windows.
Back in the present day on Marguerite Avenue, Serena accepts the Hartreves’ offer of a live-in nanny position and is thus introduced to Beth, whose mysterious ancestry immediately piques her attention. Then there comes a revelation that Eva, a melancholy adolescent, knows much about the toddler’s birth and is somewhat prepared to discuss. Eva’s admissions ought to be monumental, but Serena takes them in stride, a trait we quickly connect with her. Eva is a peculiar, waif-like, almost ethereal young lady, yet we hardly ever get to know her as she floats through the narrative.
Contemporary narrator Serena’s persona is intriguing. Young woman with injuries. Her parents were killed in a car accident. She is scarred and has an irrational fear of glass. Even more striking about Serena is her fairly surprising impetuosity. When she feels an urge, she gives it free rein, and she demonstrates an almost unbridled libido that simply refuses to take “no” for an answer. Serena meets a variety of potential liaison partners, and when the mood strikes, she liaises.
Serena’s preoccupation with the non-existence of the house next door is sparked by a specific incident, which causes her to grow increasingly fascinated with the non-existence of the house next door. Who might have lived there, and for what reasons it might have been deleted from history? Perhaps it still exists. Maybe we have simply convinced ourselves that it does not exist. And if that wasn’t enough, we also have another individual who creates black paintings that hang in a house filled with eccentrics!
At the conclusion of the nineteenth century, there is yet another enigmatic figure. Walter Balanchine is part vagabond, part magician, part psycho-analyst, part éminence-grise. He drifts in and out of the narrative, leaving uncertainty and intrigue in his wake. Similar to contemporary Beth, he appears to materialize whenever anything unexpected might occur.
The Room Beyond is an overall nice but undemanding book. With so many characters, two time periods and many places, we could never expect to achieve an end where all the concepts are worked out, all the loose ends tied up. Stephanie Elmas’s writing style remains delightful, and as a result, the book always glides effortlessly through its occurrences. For this to be a work of genre fiction, however, there may be too little tension and not enough intrigue to pique literary interest.
However, The Room Beyond is an intriguing and entertaining story that is well-told. Stephanie Elmas herself acknowledges a debt to Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose intriguing and titillating writings brought middle-class ladies scurrying to bookstores. The Room Beyond aspires to replicate this popularity by presenting a new gothic Victorian sensation play that incorporates contemporary elements. Through the figure of Serena, Stephanie Elmas may have accomplished her objective.
Philip Spires is author of A Search for Donald Cottee is a comedy tragedy about individualism.
Donald, called Donkey, is an internet Don Quixote. Donkey Cottee and Poncho Suzie have retired to Benidorm from their mining hamlet in northern England. Don has abandoned his ceaseless self-education, while Suzie has overcome her illness. Their new existence is an unending camping trip. They blog to share their experience. But they can never escape their Yorkshire beginnings, Don’s environmental campaigns and Suzie’s search for commercial success as a nightclub operator take over their life.