Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.

An unsettling debut that puts a modern spin on a genre that has been around for years, but never seems to get old.

Eleanor and Richard have been married for 6 years and have been a couple for a lot longer since they met at University. Although admitting it will be more of a nightmare for the first few years because of the amount of work the house needs ploughing into it, Richard has cajoled Eleanor to move into their ‘dream’ home. A bargain due to the dilapidated condition of the house, Richard is sure that the upheaval will all be worth it, and it will be a sound investment for their future. Eleanor isn’t so sure, but allows herself to be persuaded.

Once in the house, she ventures to what becomes known as the Upstairs Room, where she finds a lock fixed outside the door, paint scratched away around the inner door frame as if someone has tried desperately to escape, and the walls covered in the eerie childish drawings and repeated scrawlings of ‘Emily’. After this, Eleanor keeps seeing the name at various odd locations throughout the property and becomes quite obsessed with finding out about the family that lived in the house before – who was Emily? Why was she locked in that Upstairs Room?

As part of the deal to bring in some much needed funding for their ‘forever house’ project, the couple agree to rent out the basement of the house. Enter Zoe. Zoe is at a crossroads in her life and isn’t sure which direction she wants to go in. Although not delighted with the shabby, unloved basement, it is her own space, and that’s what she needs right now.

A few weeks pass and the new arrangement is stilted, but working. Slowly, things start to decline. The house feels oppressive. Eleanor falls ill – she suffers terrible migraines and nausea which she begins to believe are being caused by the house or by the mysterious ‘Emily’.
Adding to the stress of the situation is the couple’s eldest daughter Rosie, who begins to behave erratically, biting, shouting and suffering terrible rages. Richard, working part time in his job as a lawyer while progressing his Master’s degree, brushes off Eleanor’s worries as nothing to worry about and thinks that if he can get his act sorted and get the house done up, then Eleanor will suddenly just get better. But he can’t seem to apply himself to anything.

Zoe feels it too, but thinks she must be imagining it; perhaps it’s a reaction to her underwhelming place in society and overcomplicated love life. Then she begins to wake at night unable to breathe, feeling a heavy weight pushing down on her chest – she begins suffers from both sleep paralysis and sleep walking but what is causing it?

I found this to be a very interesting novel. I’d describe it as a modern day gothic novel with nods towards the housing crisis and casual sexism amongst other themes, although these are hinted to rather than overplayed. Atmospheric and character focused, it felt as though the ‘Upstairs Room’ elements (I don’t want to give anything away) were more the gel that holds the main characters, and so the book, together, rather than being the main focus of it.

If you like your books mysterious, but with a little more character and social commentary than the normal ‘spooky’ novel, then I think you’ll enjoy Kate Murray-Browne’s debut.

4/5 stars