Christopher Beale is a teacher without a school, pulled back to England after years of teaching English in a strict Muslim town in Borneo. His father has landed in a nursing home after a stroke, but Christopher still needs work. He takes on a private teaching job at the home of Lawrence and Juliet Lundy. Lawrence no longer goes to school and his mother Juliet wants a teacher to live with the family as a mentor, educator, and friend.
Stephen Gregory has crafted a fine modern Gothic novel with metaphorical possession. Do not be tricked by the official book description. It is a possession of the mind through memory and obsession, not a ghost rattling in an old suit of armor or a demon taking over a child.
Christopher is a fascinating narrator. He is reliable even when possessed with the urge to drink gin until the world disappears and he travels back to his time overseas. But the alcohol, regret, and confusion over his role in the Lundy house makes his perspective questionable. You just have to trust that this brilliant and damaged mind is capable of telling the truth. Nothing that happens in the book suggests otherwise.
The one thing that Christopher and Lawrence can bond over is birds. Specifically, the swifts that inhabit the overgrown garden at the Lundy estate. Christopher knows the darker lore about the birds–how they really live underwater to attack unnoticed, their evil nature, the hive mentality that drives them to attack humans–and Lawrence wants more.
The more you learn about Lawrence’s interests, the more you realize that something is terribly wrong with the Lundy family. It’s not just the tragic death of the father, a military pilot whose plane crashed underwater and was never recovered. It’s the power roles. Lawrence has free reign over the house to accommodate his…fragile mental state. Juliet has control over his emotions but only if she never questions his actions or reminds him why he’s no longer in a real school.
Even when removed from Lawrence, Juliet isn’t exactly a reassuring character. She has been destroyed by so many things beyond her control. Her husband, her status, even her community have been ripped from her through tragedy. The invitation for someone–anyone–to come teach her son for the summer is the last act of a lonely and desperate woman, but not a weak woman.
The horror of