Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 November 2022 from Harper Collins
My thanks to Harper Collins and Random Things Tours for an advance copy for review
What if your dream house became your worst nightmare?
Jess and her husband need a new start. So when the chance to buy a rambling old house in the Suffolk countryside comes up, they leap at it.
But not everyone in Suffolk is welcoming. The locals know a secret about the Maple House, and soon, Jess realises they’ve made a huge mistake.
Something bad happened in that house. Something nobody wants to talk about.
Something to do with the people before…
The People Before starts strongly with Jess and her husband Pete and their two young children wondering quite what they have done. They’ve left bustling, multi-cultural Walthamstow for a new life and have bought a draughty run-down pile in the Suffolk countryside which is need of serious renovation.
Maple House was once grand but now this Arts and Crafts house lies neglected and in need of serious modernisation. It is what we might call “a project”.
It’s not made clear just why they have left their Walthamstow home but as time goes on it’s clear that all is not well in Jess and Pete’s relationship. That feeling only gets worse when Pete resumes commuting to London and Jess, who gave up her own job to move into their new home, is feeling lonely and neglected.
We know quite quickly that Jess has secrets of her own, and Charlotte Northedge does an excellent job of portraying an unhappy woman in a house that feels cold and unwelcoming. More than that, there’s an atmosphere that is both spooky and malevolent as Jess feels all the time as if she is being watched.
Northedge drops hints for the reader about what has gone wrong in the marriage but readers have to wait to get the whole story and enjoy guessing what may have prompted the move.
Neither Jess nor Pete is especially likeable. Pete is hardly there and when he is he pays scant attention to Jess’s concerns. Though Jess tries to make friends with other mothers at the school gates, none of her overtures go particularly well and she feels lonely and isolated.
So she is hugely relieved when she meets Eve, who works in a local gallery and Eve is warm and friendly towards her. The two women discover they have interests in common and Jess enjoys going for a coffee with her new friend.
Soon Eve is at Maple House where she has lots of ideas about what could be done to restore it to its former grandeur.
Northedge’s book is in two voices; Jess’ story and then Eve’s perspective. Though the sense of malevolence is strong, with a small cast of characters it is not difficult to see where this story is going and from the middle of the book not all of Jess’ actions ring true. It’s not hard to second guess what’s going on and the tension dissipates somewhat as a result.
Verdict: Well written with good tension and a complement of spookiness, this is a great winter read as long as you can get over the somewhat predictable plot.
Charlotte Northedge is the joint Head of Books for the Guardian. Charlotte
has previously written for a range of newspapers and magazines, including the
Guardian, Psychologies and Cosmopolitan. A journalist, she has an MA in
Modern and Contemporary Literature from Birkbeck and is an alumni of the
Curtis Brown Creative writing course. The House Guest was Charlotte’s greatly
acclaimed debut novel, published in 2021 by Harper Collins.