Reviewed by Cal Cleary
Dr. Annie Kendall is an architectural historian who was an incredibly promising young academic before a decade of alcohol and bad decisions tore down everything she built – including her family. When she is approached by the Shalom Foundation with a job that would send her to London for three months on an academic treasure hunt, she leaps at the opportunity, eager to get involved with the kind of prestigious research that could jump start her flagging career. But there are hidden depths to Philip Weinraub, the Shalom Foundation leader who hired her, to Annie’s quest, and even to her lodgings, Bristol House itself.
Bristol House is a novel that has many compelling pieces that never quite come together to form a compelling whole – indeed, the way they come together ultimately detracts from the mystery and dispels the tension that author Beverly Swerling masterfully builds over the largely-excellent first two-thirds of the story.
There’s a lot to like in Bristol House, from its well-rounded cast of eccentrics and academics to its relatively realistic (… at first) view of research and history that manages to make both subjects incredibly interesting without descending into goofy Da Vinci Code-like puzzles (… at first). What’s more, Swerling edges around an incredibly resonant metaphor throughout the book, which connects Annie’s alcoholism and need for AA’s ‘higher power’ to the ghostly phenomena guiding her research, figures only she can see and hear. But every time Swerling gets too close to finding a way to make the supernatural plot emotionally resonant, she pulls away, settling for making it narratively convenient instead. The book slowly slips into increasingly contrived plot-driven explanations and connections that serve largely to remove agency from Bristol House’s compelling heroine.
The book is engaging enough, the characters relatable enough, the ideas interesting enough that I think it will find plenty of fans. Swerling’s prose is ceaselessly readable, the kind of quick, precise storytelling you can plow through in massive chunks, promising that you’ll just read one or two more pages but never really managing to stop. Swerling shows some real talent here, particularly with the historical aspects, but the supernatural and conspiracy thriller aspects of the novel feel disjointed. The charming cast, – love interest Geoff Harris is fine, but his mother Maggie absolutely steals the show – the rich history, even clever, fragile Annie herself make the book enjoyable, but Swerling’s seeming inexperience at bringing supernatural elements into the mix do a lot of damage to an otherwise engaging read.
Cal is a young, underemployed librarian and a frequent contributor to Read/RANT comic book reviews. He’s currently living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, with his family and using the post-grad-school grace period to read and write as much as he can.
Review and giveaway copies were provided free of any obligation by Viking Adult. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.