Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and how they so often do not fit the book in question. It’s long been a bugbear of mine. If the jacket’s eye-catching, attractive and reflects the book’s contents chances are the readers it’s aimed at will pick it up. Get the jacket wrong and you do both readers and writer a disservice. This particular jacket, however, fits its book like a glove. The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged women, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. Marie has never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise.
Marie lives with her Italian mother in Kettering. Every day she sets off for her job at the Linen Cupboard, returning in the evening to a beautifully cooked supper and a meticulously tidied house. Every day when she’s out, her mother gently rifles through her belongings, wondering why Marie has such a plethora of expensive face creams, putting everything back precisely in order. Marie rarely saw her father who spent his working week in London, leaving his wife and daughter to their own devices. They’ve always been well looked after, their material needs adequately, if not luxuriously, satisfied although not their emotional ones. Nothing has changed since Arthur died; Mr Wye makes sure of that. Marie would like to take her mother back to Italy before she dies and when she enquires at the bank if they have enough money to cover such a trip, she gets a shock. There are millions in the account left untouched under Mr Wye’s instructions. Reluctantly, the sleazy old solicitor finally discloses Arthur’s twenty brothels spread across the more salubrious London boroughs. It seems, however, that Arthur had a soft heart – his ageing employees continue to live in their homes, happily occupying expensive real-estate. The rest of Molly McGrann’s highly entertaining novel is the story of one such brothel run by Sal, Arthur’s beloved mistress, mother of his (unacknowledged) son Joseph and madam to Rita and Annetta – girls ‘for the gods’ as Arthur called them.
McGrann’s narrative shifts smoothly from past to present and back again, unfolding the stories of Rita, the gorgeous girl from Widnes plucked from a bus stop by Arthur out scouting for talent, Annetta, once an ethereal beauty now demented and given to stripping herself naked, and Joseph, who sees life through the window of London buses. It’s also the story of Marie and Flavia, the loving wife unaware of what it was Arthur got up to. McGrann has a sharp eye for characterisation coupled with a wry humour – ‘Yes, it was true, the politicians said, jumping out of the brothels and into the scrum’ in response to the tabloids’ moral outrage about the goings-on in Soho. Her descriptions are arrestingly vivid – an uncle has ‘an unwashed smell on him that crossed the room’, indulging himself in ‘strip-mining the jolliest bits of a fruit loaf’. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling which at times reminded me of Sarah Waters, or Lesley Glaister’s novels with their cast of eccentric old ladies. What’s surprising, given that McGrann is American, is the novel’s strikingly authentic English voice. The ending, though, is pure Southern Gothic.