House of Windows

House of Windows

Good evening readers. May the Fourth be with you. Please note that the following review is based on an advanced reader copy that I received from the publisher and therefore may contain slight differences to the finished work.

House of Windows was written by Alexia Casale, author of the Waterstones Award nominated The Bone Dragon. It is due for release on 6th August 2015 and is a contemporary novel which follows the life of a fifteen year old boy during his first year of University. The book is a stand-alone story and so you don’t need to have read any of Casale’s other work to enjoy it.

Nick Derran hates that people think of him as being a genius. Just because he’s been accepted into Cambridge University three years early does not mean that he is different to anyone else his age, he just knows that he works a lot harder. He does this purely to get the attention of his father, Michael – a man utterly consumed by his work – although his plan does not seem to be working that well.

Although Nick is immediately enchanted by the beautiful city of Cambridge, he finds University much more difficult than he imagined. Although he finds the work easy, the age gap between him and the other students makes it hard for him to socialise. How can he possibly fit in with people who think of nothing but drinking when he’s too young to even enter the pubs?

In an attempt to make friends, he joins the rowing team but this quickly leads to disaster. A trip to a police station and hospital later and he’s no better off than when he started. Yet, as Nick settles into the life of a student he begins to discover friends in the least likely of places and finally starts to learn that maybe he’s not as alone as he once believed.

I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of this book because, as you may recall, I was rather taken with Casale’s debut novel. While it wasn’t perfect, the story struck a chord with me and was certainly unforgettable. While I didn’t think that House of Windows was quite as strong as The Bone Dragon, it did deliver a similar emotional impact (though without the dark sting in the tail).

Perhaps I should get the negatives out of the way before I tell you what I loved about the story. The opening of House of Windows was incredibly slow and I found the first hundred pages ago quite difficult to get through. This was purely due to the info-dumping – the sheer amount of facts about Cambridge University that were imparted onto Nick over Freshers’ Week.

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I have been to University. I’m very proud to be an alumnus of the University of East Anglia and I’m familiar with the fact that every campus has some unique aspects that you only truly understand if you’ve been there (for example, our campus grocery shop was just known as the UFO which everyone pronounced “You-Fo”). However, Cambridge University seems to be like some kind of alien planet. Nothing was called by its actual name and every event seemed to have some kind of strange ritual attached to it. A lot of the opening chapters was devoted to Nick finding out about each of these in turn. The sheer amount of information was difficult to process as an outsider and drew my attention away from the story as I tried to memorise as much as possible, assuming it would be important for my later understanding. Unfortunately, a lot of it was pretty irrelevant leading me to wonder if it was necessary to describe it at all.

I also think the novel’s structure might be a bit marmite for readers. House of Windows is really more of a character study than a story. The plot jumps from event to event, often leaving gaps of days or weeks between the chapters. Personally, I felt that this worked very well. The title of the story is taken from a famous novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (“The body is a house of many windows: there we sit, showing ourselves and crying on the passers-by to come and love us”) and this really was reflected in the structure of the story. The reader becomes the outsider, looking in through the windows to experience brief moments of Nick’s life which eventually come together to allow us to understand his motivation. However, if you’re more a fan of traditional linear stories with a beginning, middle and end, this probably isn’t the novel for you.

Yet, enough with my gripes. Let’s talk about what House of Windows does well.

There is a passion in Casale’s writing that really does shine through. Cambridge is evidently a place that the author holds dear. In The Bone Dragon, the descriptions of the Cambridgeshire Fens were hauntingly beautiful and this time she describes the city itself with the same love. I’ve never been to Cambridge but this book certainly made me want to. It seems almost magical – a place full of history and with the power to even capture the heart of a sullen fifteen year old.

Characterisation is also really a strong suit of this author, and in a story like this it is really the most important thing. At the beginning of the novel, I hated Nick. I found him needlessly rude and insensitive to feelings of those around him. Yet, as the story progressed, his tragic backstory is slowly revealed and I began to see exactly why he behaved that way. On understanding exactly what made Nick tick, his behaviour suddenly became more understandable and I could fully appreciate why he continuously pushed away the people who cared about him.

I do feel that Casale just really understands people. She never insults the reader by spelling out exactly what her characters are feeling. At a first glance, her creations may seem very simple but they gradually show depth through the tiniest of gestures. Casale never really tells you what her characters are feeling but she does show it in their behaviour – in their tone of voice or a simple look. The cast of this story is very varied and every character spoke with a different voice, ranging from Nick’s neglectful father to the prickly yet protective Professor Gosswin (who was by far my favourite character) and it was really nice to see that all the author took as much care in crafting her secondary cast as she did the protagonist.

The characters in the story develop in realistic ways. There are no sudden moments of clarity that make bad people suddenly transform into paragons of virtue. The growth of the cast happens in small and understated ways, at first being barely noticeable at all. For me, this was just perfect. It really grounded the story in the real world and therefore made it all the more believable. Real people don’t have Hollywood epiphanies. Their personal growth is the result of years of experience and for some people it doesn’t happen at all. The absolute best thing about this story for me was that it was that the whole cast behave like normal, everyday people. They just felt so real and, because of this, I could truly relate to them.

So, what did I think over all? Well, House of Windows wasn’t perfect and I did enjoy The Bone Dragon more. The story was very slow burning and contained a lot of unnecessary detail in the beginning. However, as a character study, it’s rather brilliant. The whole cast are incredibly well rounded and by the novel I found that I really did care about them all. If you like exciting stories, this is probably one to avoid but if you’re a fan of emotional, character-driven novels this is certainly one for you.

House of Windows is due for release on 6th August 2015 and is currently available to pre-order on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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