Do those who miraculously miss the boat that sinks, the plane that crashes, the train that goes off the rails, feel a sense of relief – or guilt? Have they changed their destiny – or was the outcome unavoidable? Katherine Howe examines the consequences and controls of fate in her historical novel The House of Velvet and Glass.
Using the sinking of the Titanic as her catalyst, Howe weaves historical fiction into the lives of the Allston family – those who sank with the ship and those left behind. Helen, and her daughter Eulah, died at sea on the Titanic en route back to Boston from a successful European campaign to find a husband for her daughter. Helen’s husband, a former seaman and now successful businessman, remained behind with Sibyl and her brother, Harley.
Following her mother’s interest in séances, Sibyl, the unmarried eldest child, visits a medium, hoping to contact her dead mother. She comes away with a mysterious scrying glass in a velvet box; under the influence of opiates, Sibyl can see events in the glass. As she looks for her mother and sister within the glass’ misty aura, she finds instead a future catastrophe.
As the chapters move back and forth, following each member of the family at different times and places, the focus of the story is a little hazy, and you may wonder where it is going. Although the present is set at the aftermath of the Titanic, with Sibyl’s search for solace, the plot has more to offer than just another Titanic story.
Howe revisits the patriarch’s youthful adventures in Shanghai that foreshadow Sibyl’s talents and a surprise solution at the end to the mystery of their paranormal inclinations. Helen’s and Eulah’s fateful voyage also become part of the action with descriptions of passengers and shipboard romance. Harley, the youngest and only son, recently expelled from his senior year at Harvard, brings Dovie, his ethereal lover into the plot as well as Benton, his professor and Sibyl’s love interest – both catalysts who help Sibyl realize her hidden talents.
Howe weaves traces of the supernatural into historical events – similar to how she used New England history in her first book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. For Downton Abbey fans, the story echoes the nineteenth century era of World War I with its fashion and emerging technological advances.
An ominous clock ticks away throughout the narrative, marking the lives of the characters, bringing them closer to the inevitable, and Howe poses some philosophical questions about chance, fate, and how choices can affect both.
A clever mix of mystery, romance, history, and the supernatural…if you enjoyed Howe’s first book, you will like this one too. I did.