by W.S. Barton
I’ve been a reader all my life and at 51 find myself mostly reading contemporary women’s fiction about mid-life set in the United States. It’s comfortable, sometimes enlightening and, certainly, plentiful.
And then I discovered Coal House by W.S. Barton. Set in post World War II Wales, the book doesn’t pigeon-hole itself into a time period. If you didn’t pay attention to details, it would be hard to say if this was late 19th century or mid 20th. To me, it was the language of the book which transports the reader into the past.
As an adult I’m reading fiction set in my time period, but as a teen my favorite books in the world were Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. A chapter or two into Coal House and I felt like I was visiting an old friend. The prose captured my attention and drew me into the tale, keeping me up late quite a few nights – apropos for a ghost story.
The premise of the novel centers around a married couple undergoing typical marital strife who, while on holiday trying to get past said strife, get caught up in the possibility of new beginnings and purchase an unbelievably well priced house at an auction. Here’s a little wisdom learned from my five decades – if something seems like too good a deal, it probably is and will end with you having to battle demons, ghosts and murderous intent.
Much time is spent learning about the house, grounds and community which surround Coal House. I am just floored by Barton’s use of language to captivate the reader. I could pull any quote to share because I adored the feeling crafted by the words. So that you may understand Barton’s prose, here is one short paragraph:
A quite marvellous feature of the library was the huge coal fire and although I had seen it earlier it was only on truly embracing the cold that I observed the true functionality. It was a centrepiece worthy of it’s eponymity. It would have looked wonderfully majestic when used for purpose and with the proximity to the mines, at some point, coal would have been in plentiful supply. I considered the lunacy which must have possessed whoever decided to remove all the trees, precious fuel, and I couldn’t fathom it. It couldn’t be helped. I realized the the outhouse must have been used to store coal.
Barton managed to write a comfortable, flowery, good old fashioned ghost tale but one which kept me guessing as to the plot. Each chapter built upon the last and I kept changing my guess as to what was to come. When the book came to a close, I took several days to begin this review. It was a journey and I need time to process what I’d experienced. I would highly recommend Coal House and hope to see more of Barton’s writing in future.