The Dollhouse: A Ghost Story – by Charis Cotter
Tundra Books, 2021
Reading Charis Cotter’s new novel for middle-grade readers and older, I considered and reconsidered the genre of the “ghost story.” Those thoughts are a testament to the book’s quality; it bridges the categories of mystery, tales of the supernatural, and even horror, but also belongs to the coming-of-age novel. Alice Greene is a hyper-imaginative twelve-year-old whose family life is falling apart. Her father, a successful architect, is somewhat less successful as a spouse and a parent, always raising expectations that he cannot meet. Her mother is a hardworking nurse who seems grounded and determined to care for her daughter. When the novel begins, everyone is on edge, and the reader is unsure of what to expect.
The dollhouse of the title is an exceptionally sophisticated piece of architecture more than a toy. In fact, its inspiration was the renowned Queen Mary’s dolls’ house in England. The scale itself of this building discourages the idea of a cozy miniature world, although the fantasy of dolls who come to life in their own parallel universe is inherent in the novel. However, there is a twist; the inhabitants of this doll house are eerie counterparts to the real world. The connection is subtle and full of dramatic tension, as questions surface about exactly how the two worlds are related.
Compelling characters are at the center of the story. Alice Greene, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, confronts irrational people and confusing events that seem to govern her life. The elderly Mrs. Bishop who employs Alice’s mother is difficult to decipher. Is she a crusty old woman hiding a kind heart beneath her tough exterior, or just a selfish and nasty person not granted wisdom in old age? Lily, the daughter of Mrs. Bishop’s housekeeper, is a young woman with a developmental disability. It is relatively uncommon for someone like Lily to appear as a secondary character in a children’s or young adult novel. Her disability is not the central theme of the story, but a natural part of her character that influences the sequence of events and her friend, Alice’s, response to them. (In a thoughtful afterword, Cotter explains the genesis of the story and the real-life model for Lily.).
For Jane Austen fans, or future Jane Austen fans, Cotter offers one partial explanation for Alice’s difficulties. She describes the heroine of Austen’s satire of Gothic literature, Northanger Abbey, with the disdain she seems to think that Alice deserves for being unfamiliar with this classic:
“She has read too many ridiculous novels about men who keep wives locked up in secret rooms, and…she creates an entire fiction about the man of the house, imagining that he was cruel to his wife and may even have caused her death. Total nonsense. She’s the kind of girl who spends too much time in her imagination and finally couldn’t tell what was real and what was not.”
Does Alice spend too much time in an imagined world? Perhaps. Is her anguish premised on “total nonsense?” No. The space between those two possibilities is the core of this intriguing book.