Continuing with my book buying ban this year, I decided to pick up this beautiful novel with its captivatingly enticing cover at the recommendation from my Mum. My Mum and I often differ in our reading choices, with hers normally centering around non-fiction and true crime, and mine strongly sat in the realms of historical fiction. However, her passion for both this book and the assurance that I would love it meant that, last time I was at my parents, I just had to take it home. And my goodness! This book was the perfect thing to welcome spring in with, to curl up with during the storms, and to lose myself in with the delightful and simply magical narrative.
“Distraught that her academic career has stalled, Alba is walking through her hometown of Cambridge, England, when she finds herself in front of a house she’s never seen before, 11 Hope Street. A beautiful older woman named Peggy greets her and invites her to stay, on the house’s usual conditions: she has ninety-nine nights to turn her life around. With nothing left to lose, Alba takes a chance and moves in.
She soon discovers that this is no ordinary house. Past residents have included Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker, who, after receiving the assistance they needed, hung around to help newcomers – literally, in talking portraits on the wall. As she escapes into this new world, Alba begins a journey that will heal her wounds – and maybe even save her life.” – Good Reads
It would be remiss of me to begin this review without further mentioning just how wonderful the writing style of this novel is. As the book began, no sooner had I finished the first page, did I know that this was a book I was going to fall in love with. The world created by Praag is so detailed and whimsical that you can feel yourself being pulled into the page, a nameless character observing the actions of those within. Her use of language was so unique and creative that I was captivated at every word, desperate to find out what would happen next. I keep a record on my phone of fantastic examples of writing that I can show my somewhat disillusioned students (they are teenagers – do I need to say more?) and this, I feel, should definitely go first. I always find that I need the first chapter to fully appreciate a book, often making note of the correlation between books I love and how ill-frequently I am disrupted reading that first chapter, but as I curled up with the book in front of me, I couldn’t help but devour it.
Building upon this, the narrative is heavily reliant on magical realism and it truly brings an element to the cliched ‘finding yourself’ story. The house that Alba stumbles upon is anthropomorphised, somehow managing to know what the characters need before they even know themselves. As the characters work their way towards their destiny, they are coached by the former residents of the house, all famous female figures throughout history. I thought this might be cliched and jarring, but Praag handles each figure in such a beautiful manner that they seem individual and as complex as the ‘real’ characters too. The magical realism turns this novel into something astounding, and I simply can’t imagine it without it.
Of course, the true ‘make-or-break’ of a novel is the characters. If they are too ‘cardboard-cutout’, I often find myself resenting the read and cannot wait to DNF it. However, the characters that this novel circulates around are all so complex and gorgeous that you find yourself drowning in their stories, truly invested in the lives they lead. I laughed, I cried, I smiled. It was though every emotion the characters felt, I felt twofold. Every character felt like a true individual, their backstories so developed and detailed that you lose yourself in the narrative, waiting to see if it is possible for them to reach their true purpose and their true happiness. Each somehow outside of their lives looking in, you could not help but empathise with them, desperate to see them rejoin, either rebuilding those connections that had become tainted or finding some way, or someone, to create something new.
This is one of those reads that you find yourself thinking about long after you have closed the final page. I connected with the characters so much and genuinely feel like I am carrying them around with me still. If you are looking for something to lose yourself in, something light-hearted but complex, you simply must pick this read up. I promise you will not regret it!