The Girl on the Landing
by Paul Torday
Publisher: Orion Books
We humans like stories. We’ve told them round camp fires before we could write them down and since then we’ve read them to ourselves and our children and so they have evolved and multiplied. On occasion we revisit and rework them updating for new ages and new generations.
As I see it (or rather read it), that is what Paul Torday has achieved here. This neat and welcoming novel has the feel of tales told before; where characters are troubled by ghosts of the past that come shake up the future. And ‘ghosts’ is no idle metaphor; we are in supernatural territory with this novel. Not I should stress the gross out horror of James Herbert or the fantasy worlds of Clive Barker. Rather it is the gentler, more grounded tradition of Doyle’s Hound or James’ Wailing Well that came to mind.
I stopped for a moment, wondering what had alarmed me. I looked uphill, expecting perhaps to see a fox staring down at me, or a buzzard wheeling above me in the sky. The sensation of being watched was now so powerful that I could scarcely prevent myself from breaking into a run. A prickle of sweat broke out on my forehead. All of a sudden, I was seized by a feeling of horror, as if something from outside had come into the world.
Stephen King has suggested there are key archetypes that underpin supernatural fiction; the ghost, the creature without a name, the vampire and the werewolf. I think two of those come into play in this novel but I’ll not tell you which as that would be too much of a spoiler. Instead let me set the scene. Michael and Elizabeth have a dull marriage because Michael is a dull, socially distant man, happiest in his crumbling family pile in Scotland. When not there he holds down a job of little importance at the minor Gentleman’s Club he frequents in London. Elizabeth has her own reasons for staying with Michael; it seems she does not believe she has the right to ask for much more in life and whilst not contented, she is resigned. It is not long however before things begin to change. Michael sees, or thinks he sees, a figure in a painting and from there on he begins to alter. Elizabeth is surprised, pleased and concerned by the new Michael who is both more alive and more troubled. As disturbing events multiply, so Elizabeth learns more of Michael’s childhood and what this will mean for their new relationship.
Michael and Elizabeth both tell their interwoven story in the first person, a device that allows us to know them intimately and sympathetically. Personally I preferred Michael as narrator, it is with him that we are closest to the heart of the story and for me the story is central here. Whilst it is a contemporary reworking of themes mentioned above, Michael seems only partly connected to the modern world; he eschews mobile phones, travels by train and inhabits a club with values and customs from the days of Empire. This creates and maintains the link back to tales already told. Similar themes concerning past influences can also be found in Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother, in Michael’s past life in Scotland and his developing views on the ancestry of the British peoples. This multi-layered approach is handled by Torday with a deft touch, never weighing down what is an enjoyable read yet adding an extra dimension to keep the discerning reader engaged. If I have a criticism it might be that the ending comes a little quickly after a measured build-up but this is a minor quibble as overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Try it over the holiday season with a good malt, a roaring fire and the wind rattling the chimney pots!
Paul Torday was born in 1946 and read English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. He spent the next 30 years working in engineering and in industry, after which he scaled back his business responsibilities to fulfil a long-harboured ambition - to write. He burst on to the literary scene in 2006 with his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an immediate bestseller that has been sold in 19 countries. He is married with two sons by a previous marriage and has two stepsons and lives close to the River North Tyne.