As 2012 is the centennial anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking one would be hard pressed to not come across a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, regarding the ill-fated luxury liner. Such is the case with Katherine Howe’s sophomore effort The House of Velvet and Glass, which begins its narrative just outside of the Titanic’s grand dining room on the evening of April 14, 1912. What could quickly become yet another over dramatized, maudlin look at the sinking of the ship, smoothly transitions to Boston, 1915 where a group of survivors and family members of the deceased are together in a spiritualist’s parlor attempting to ease their grief in any way possible. It is here that readers meet Sybil Allston, a 27-year-old woman whose family was devastated by the loss of her mother and younger sister. As the novel unfolds, it delves into Sybil’s life as she struggles to deal with her excruciating loss, her father’s dark moods, and her ne'er-do-well younger brother’s destructive tendencies. As Sybil tussles with the mounting issues at home and the increasingly erratic behavior of her brother she is thrown into a series of events that will dramatically change her life, and forever alter her view of the past.
Much like Howe kept this novel from being an exercise on sinking ships, she also avoids a novel full of survivor’s grief. Instead, readers follow Sybil as she grapples with the staid path her life has taken, and with a deft little twist, Howe uses chapter breaks to flit between Sybil’s father’s past as a sailor in Shanghai, and her mother and sister’s last night aboard the Titanic. The changing narratives help to weave an intriguing story, bringing in the same hint of the occult that made her first book The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane such an entertaining and unexpected marvel. For the sake of the revelation, I won’t go into these supernatural elements--I enjoyed how they so unexpectedly unfolded far too much to divulge them to readers, but I will say Howe uses her scholarly grasp of history in unique and wonderful ways.
The House of Velvet and Glass’s multiple narratives present a rich look at the lives of one family as they deal with love, loss, self-discovery, war, and a touch of the supernatural. The characters are full-bodied, rushing through the pages with remarkable realism, and at times gut-clenching decision-making and the prose is intricate, without being boring in it’s historical accuracy. This is a well-written multi-layered novel that perfectly displays the writing talents of author Howe--a wonderful and engrossing novel to read.