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I have always loved browsing charity shops, and in my home city of Sheffield the Broomhill area constitutes a second hand gold mine. The best of these charity shops is the Oxfam, which as well as the usual odds and ends has an impressive collection of books. At the end of a short and dingy October day, I took the three pounds left over from my weekly shop and went story hunting - eventually turning up this book, A Face at The Window by Dennis McFarland.
- The Story -
A Face at the Window tells the story of successful American businessman Cookson Selway, who lives with his author wife Ellen and daughter Jordie. He is a happy man - prosperous, contentedly married, and safe in the belief that his former addictions to drink and drugs are far behind him. But Jordie's decision to go to boarding school triggers a trip to England which has disturbing consequences for Cookson, Ellen and the people they meet there.
The couple check in to an old London hotel, from where Ellen intends to do research for her new book. At first all is going well: but then Cookson begins to hear strange music and voices, and to talk to people he finds no one else can see. Among these people are a young girl called Victoria and a young boy called James. He also experiences strange, terrifying dreams in which he seems to be in the hotel in an earlier time, and begins to behave strangely towards Ellen without his knowledge. Over time he begins to believe that he has an innate connection with the spiritual world, which was suppressed by his alcohol and substance abuse and which is now finally resurfacing.
I don't believe in giving away too much of the plot of books, especially ones with so much twists and turns, so I will satisfy myself by saying that the remainder of the story tracks Cookson's continued descent into the spiritual and his interaction with quests at the hotel including an old Chinese couple called the Shopans and an ambitious young French porter called Pascal.
- My Opinion -
As a basic premise, the above story sounds fascinating - an intriguing mixture of traditional ghost story and personal psychology - and much of the book was indeed interesting. The main problem with the plot is that it set up a beautifully complex scenario, drawing the reader inwards, but there is then no subsequent satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps the author does this on purpose, but instead of giving the intended impression of life's uncertainty, it just serves to leave the reader incredibly frustrated.
There is a similar problem with the characters. Told as the story is from Cookson's point of view, it does read rather like his own personal character study and so you get to know him very well - all of his weaknesses, paranoid traits, dreams and plans. The problem with this is that the surrounding characters are barely even sketched in. Ellen is there only as a representative of Cookson's guilt: the Shopan's are apparently grieving for a son, but seem really only a device to enhance the plot: the 'ghosts' are often glib, or creepy, but rarely seem to talk like real people. They are all just reflections of Cookson, not free thinking individuals in their own right. The only truly sympathetic character is the porter, Pascal, who brings some much needed energy to an otherwise very dreamy narrative.
Overall, the tone of the book is of an author who's aimed high, but missed just by a fraction. All the elements are there for a fantastic story, but not quite enough. Any avid reader will empathise when I say that you can see the potential for a masterpiece: but it just hasn't the wings to get out.
- Recommendation -
If you happen across this book in a library, then it is probably worth a read. As a premise, it is undoubtedly very interesting. But don't go out of your way to find it: don't pay the ten pound it costs new on Amazon: I can think of better places to have sent my leftover £2.99. This is a clever book, but ultimately an unmemorable one.