For readers longing for a book that resembles “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” but is also infused with gothic horror, look no further than Jane Cockram’s debut novel, “The House of Brides,” which is filled with a hearty helping of great houses fallen into ruin, shadowy figures lurking in hallways, and buried scandals that entangle generations of wealthy female socialites. “The House of Brides” follows Miranda Courtenay, a social media influencer specializing in healthy lifestyle content who has recently fallen out of favor with her followers. In the midst of public scrutiny and familial disappointment, Miranda receives a mysterious letter pleading for help from her long-dead mother, the renowned Tessa Summer, who penned a book titled “The House of Brides” about the history of eccentric summer women who dwelled at Barnsley House, her own family’s longstanding English estate, over the decades. The return address on the letter? The same estate that Miranda’s mother had brought to life in her writing. Throughout the tale of Miranda’s impromptu investigation into Barnsley disguised as a nanny seeking work, Cockram concocts captivating descriptions that color her writing with impressive eeriness. Even though her eye for detail and her ear for tone are to be lauded, Cockram’s presentation of the plot leaves much to be desired, from her excessive reliance on a character’s journal entries to drive the story forward to her persistent attempts to bring “hip” social media references into the narrative.
Cockram’s writing style is loaded with gems of detail that capture the subtler facets of horror, effortlessly achieving the atmosphere of paranoia that is highly coveted within the mystery and suspense genres. As she seamlessly alternates between descriptions of the setting and character, Cockram establishes psychological depth and thematic cohesiveness with passages such as the one where Miranda first meets her uncle Max Summer, the current proprietor of Barnsley: “I knew now that the lush grass of the pictures was invaded by winter weeds, and I was expecting the human equivalent. A man in his prime, cut down by the insidious creep of life.” Even when Cockram veers towards less original imagery to invoke suspense, such as motifs of solitude or darkness, her elegant phrasing saves the familiar language from seeming too derivative or cartoonish: “I carried no torch, and it took some time for my eyes to adjust, the branches intertwining overhead to create a tunnel of darkness through which I ventured slowly.”
Despite Cockram’s general success in terms of her carefully nuanced writing, her stylistic choices are occasionally so oddly dissonant with her previously established voice that it jerks the reader out of the story. At the end of certain paragraphs, like the one in which Miranda offhandedly comments on how many bananas she used to eat, Cockram tacks on hashtags like “#potassium #hearhear #wellness” as if she suddenly started writing an Instagram caption rather than a novel. These baffling hashtags add nothing to the narrative, except to serve as a tacky reminder that Miranda used to be a social media influencer. In fact, they detract from the novel’s thematic integrity by casting the protagonist in a laughably childish light and dissipating much of the tension that Cockram has otherwise been working so hard to build.
Continuing on the topic of references to social media, Cockram relentlessly attempts to inject modernity and Internet-savviness into “The House of Brides” to the point that it comes off as awkward and disingenuous. For instance, in a suspenseful scene where Miranda is confronting a character who was heavily foreshadowed as an antagonist, Cockram interjects that Miranda “had to draw on all the inspirational memes [she] had ever reposted to move [her] legs one after the other and follow Mrs. Mins up the hill.” At first, the mentions of social media seemed to be building towards a moral of how cultivating an online façade of perfection isn’t worth forgoing meaningful, real-life experiences. However, Cockram never tries to qualify or flesh out this notion, and simply shoehorns this same warning against technology into the plot at regular intervals like a nagging mother.
Another downfall of “The House of Brides” is Cockram’s heavy reliance on inserting notes, article clippings, and journal entries into the text to convey crucial plot details. The main consequence of dedicating a substantial portion of the total page count to journal entries written by Daphne Summer, the newest bride of Barnsley House, is that Miranda’s role in the novel is relegated to seeking out opportunities to read this diary. Because Cockram doesn’t give much chance for Miranda to be a proactive protagonist, “The House of Brides” puts most of its action in flashbacks, which unfortunately only jumbles the narrative flow and minimizes the significance of present events in the plot. Given the clumsy presentation of the plot, it’s not much of a surprise that the conclusion to “The House of Brides” is similarly disappointing. Although Cockram continuously implies that Miranda’s life is in danger at Barnsley and that dark secrets lurk in her family history, the final plot twist is nowhere near as thrilling as advertised.
Final verdict? A craving for familiar drama would better be fixed by watching reruns of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” — after all, Kim’s petty feuds with her sisters might just be grittier than the entire plot of “The House of Brides.”
—Staff writer Miranda Eng can be reached at email@example.com.