Book Review: The Beholders by Hester Musson
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: June, 1878. The body of a boy is pulled from the depths of the River Thames, suspected to be the beloved missing child of the widely admired Liberal MP Ralph Gethin. Four months earlier. Harriet is a young maid newly employed at Finton Hall. Fleeing the drudgery of an unwanted engagement in the small village where she grew up, Harriet is entranced by the grand country hall; she is entranced too by her glamorous mistress Clara Gethin, whose unearthly singing voice floats through the house. But Clara, though captivating, is erratic. The master of the house is a much-lauded politician, but he is strangely absent. And some of their beautiful belongings seem to tell terrible stories. Unable to ignore her growing unease, Harriet sets out to discover their secrets. When she uncovers a shocking truth, a chain of events is set in motion that could cost Harriet everything, even her freedom…
FORMAT/INFO: The Beholders will be published on January 18, 2024 by Harper Collins. It will be available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Let me just tell you that Harriet Watkins, young maid newly employed at Finton Hall did something most of us never could. She gets a beautiful diary, a lovely green one, and actually writes in it. If you’ve gotten over that, let’s continue. She flees an unwanted engagement to take up service at this place, and writes entries in her diary, which we get in the form of this simply marvellous debut.
In this house, Harriet gets astounded by what to her service-class eyes looks like a world within the walls of the property, as well as the enigmatic mistress, Mrs. Gethin of the house. Beyond the first entry in the diary, it is clear that this is not a rosy environment, there are something sinister and this feeling slowly builds toward a certain point. I admit, the beginning was slow and will irk some readers, but trust me when I say the payoff is worth it. It’s been two days since I finished reading this, and the more time that passes, the more I realises this pace was really effective.
Why does all this matter? Because the mistress, Mrs. Gethin had a reputation among the work staff of being difficult, constantly dismisses servants, but suddenly takes an inscrutable interest in Harriet, who is nothing special. In a few months, she gets convicted of the murder of her child, and our protagonist is swept up in the case, all while not knowing what the complete truth could be, and wondering if she judged her situation correctly.
The writing is quite strong and the voice feels authentic. It acknowledges all the grind and drudgery of being part of the servant class in such a place, as well as the feeling of being trapped with no better prospects, of having been painted into a corner, and possibly pissing off those in more powerful positions. What it does better, is paint a very compelling picture of how scary it is to live in a corrupt man’s world. The character introduction and establishment takes about the first half of the book, and the plot is sheer genius in some ways. I feel like certain things could have been written in a more direct manner, but they did add to the gothic atmosphere well.
CONCLUSION: If I said anything more, even more good stuff about this book, I would be spoiling it for you. Hester Musson knocks it out of the park with sheer ingenuity in plotting and fine atmosphere-building. So good, and very recommended.