Book Review: A Good House for Children by Kate Collins

Title: A Good House for Children
Author: Kate Collins
Genre: Horror, Ghosts
Rating: 5 stars
Publication Date: March 2, 2023
Purchase: Amazon

The dazzling debut novel from Kate Collins—a feminist gothic mystery spanning decades, in the vein of Mexican Gothic and The Essex Serpent.

Once upon a time Orla was: a woman, a painter, a lover. Now she is a mother and a wife, and when her husband Nick suggests that their city apartment has grown too small for their lives, she agrees, in part because she does agree, and in part because she is too tired to think about what she really does want. She agrees again when Nick announces with pride that he has found an antiquated Georgian house on the Dorset cliffs—a good house for children, he says, tons of space and gorgeous grounds. But as the family settles into the mansion—Nick absent all week, commuting to the city for work—Orla finds herself unsettled. She hears voices when no one is around; doors open and close on their own; and her son Sam, who has not spoken in six months, seems to have made an imaginary friend whose motives Orla does not trust.

Four decades earlier, Lydia moves into the same house as a live-in nanny to a grieving family. Lydia, too, becomes aware of intangible presences in the large house, and she, like Orla four decades later, becomes increasingly fearful for the safety of the children in her care. But no one in either woman’s life believes her: the stories seem fanciful, the stuff of magic and mayhem, sprung from the imaginations of hysterical women who spend too much time in the company of children.

Are both families careening towards tragedy? Are Orla and Lydia seeing things that aren’t there? What secrets is the house hiding? A feminist gothic tale perfectly suited for the current moment, A Good House for Children combines an atmospheric mystery with resonant themes of motherhood, madness, and the value of a woman’s work.

It’s been a long time since I read a book that gripped me the way A Good House for Children did. I still can’t quite get over how amazing I thought this book was.

If you know me, you probably know I’m a huge fan of haunted house stories. It’s literally my favourite type of story. Gothic novels featuring sprawling mansions set in a desolate landscape? I’m in. I never turn down any book that has this kind of premise. Still, after reading dozens, if not hundreds, of books with more-or-less the same premise, it’s difficult to surprise me when presenting me with the haunted-house-trope. But then came along A Good House for Children, and I’m not just surprised; I’m completely blown away.

The Reeve. A haunted house like no other. Standing on the edge of the Dorset cliffs, it looks down upon the village below, upon the unforgiving sea, and upon mankind itself. The sprawling estate, large and (un)welcoming, seems the perfect house to raise kids.

At least, that’s what Orla’s husband Nick, tries to convince her of. But the moment Orla moves into the house, she already feels something is wrong with the bones of the house. The house is wrong. Its atmosphere, but also the way time moves inside the house, sometimes crawling slowly, other times making hours disappear in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t help that Nick is away for most of the week, leaving Orla alone with her young son Sam and her baby daughter Bridie.

The book alternates between Orla’s story and Lydia’s story, set in the 1976s, so a good forty years earlier. Lydia moves into The Reeve as live-in nanny for four young children who have recently lost their father. Offering also emotional support to the mother, Lydia struggles to find a balance between taking care of the children and urging their mother to spend more time with the children.

Loneliness plays a pivotal role in this book. We are all ghosts, as Kate Collins so pointedly writes in her novel. Ghosts of our pasts, ghosts of our what-could-be’s and what-will-never-be’s. Although Lydia is surrounded by another adult and four children, she is at her core, alone. For Orla, the loneliness is even more suffocating as her partner is not hidden in an upstairs room, but commutes to the city for most of the week, leaving her to fend for herself–and her kids–against forces that prey on every weakness.

The book takes it time to set the pace, to picture the characters, allowing you time, as a reader, to get to know the inhabitants of The Reeve. But as you devour page after page, an unsettled feeling starts creeping in. This isn’t in-your-face horror, no. It’s the subtle, atmospheric horror that is a million times more terrifying. It’s the type of horror that makes you wonder if you really did leave that piece of paper out on the kitchen table the next morning, or if you did leave your keys where you found them and not in another location. Is your memory foggy, or is something more troubling going on? That’s how the events in The Reeve start, with small, unsettling tidbits that gradually develop into an all-consuming horror that leaves the reader shaken, long after having finished the tale.

The prose is haunting (what a fitting word here), lyrical without being overdone, and it really lifts this book to the next level. I’m actually surprised this is the author’s debut, just because of how solid the prose is. Reading this almost feels like a poem, or a lullaby, where one sentence guides you effortlessly into the next.

I can’t wait for this author’s next book. If you enjoy haunted house stories, or just really well-written stories with a creepy vibe, then don’t hesitate for a second, just read A Good House for Children. You won’t be dissapointed.