Book Review: ‘The Shadow Hour’ by Kate Riordan

Kate Riordan’s The Shadow Hour is a tale of two governesses, forty-four years apart.

In 1878, Harriet Jenner is the governess to Helen and Victoria Pembridge at Fenix House. She is only there for one summer, but the events that take place during her stay have a long-lasting effect on each family member.

Grace Fairford arrives at Fenix House in 1922 as the new governess, expecting to see the house that her grandmother had been telling her tales about her whole life. But instead of the impressive manor that had been described to her, Grace is greeted with the dilapidated and run-down home of David Pembridge and his family. She soon learns that her grandmother’s stories may not have been as truthful as she was led to believe, and she starts to wonder why her grandmother told her she was meant to be governess of Fenix House someday.

Switching between different perspectives and time-frames, The Shadow Hour is a curious story about family and secrets. It’s slightly Gothic atmosphere creates tension around the stories of Grace Fairford and Harriet Jenner.

We are introduced to Fenix House first through Grace. The crumbling building surprises her, as do the inhabitants. It is days before she meets the child she is supposed to be taking care of as he is confined to bed with a mystery illness.

Harriet’s story begins when Grace comes to realise that she hasn’t been honest about her time as governess there. She failed to tell Grace how she had previously known the lady of the house and why exactly she decided to leave after only one summer.

This is a good story and well written, but it does get a bit slow at times, to the point that about 100 pages of the book could have been cut and the story wouldn’t have been changed much.

Telling the story in two time-frames is an interesting plot device, but it can come across a bit gimmicky at times. Grace’s story serves as more of a suspense builder for Harriet’s. As soon as something interesting starts to happen to Harriet, the narration jumps back to Grace and the reader has to wade through her chapters before finding out what happens to Harriet. This does create a lot of intrigue within the book, but unfortunately the answers never properly live up to the anticipation the questions create.

It’s difficult not to compare the book to famous novels about governesses such as The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre. This isn’t necessarily a fault with the book, and to be fair to the author, she does have Harriet read Jane Eyre and comment on the similarities between their situations. But the book isn’t quite strong enough to live up to the standards set out, and there are a few too many similarities to get away without a comparison.

The ending confused me slightly. There were a couple of things that I had to go back and read again to fully understand what had happened. And I never quite got my head around why Harriet lied to Grace for years about what happened when she was governess, and then sent her there to be a governess herself. The cynic in me sees it more as attention seeking than anything else.

The Shadow Hour is an enjoyable book overall- as long as you don’t expect too much from the ending, and don’t mind a bit of superfluous details along the way.