Katharine McMahon fashions a post-World War I London in her novel, The Crimson Rooms. She prefaces her story with a Wilfred Owen poem, written in 1918. Titled “The Kind Ghosts,” it metaphorically depicts one aftermath of war, the ghosts that haunt the living, especially at night. One line is telling: “Quiet their blood lies in her crimson rooms.” McMahon’s main character, Evelyn Gifford, lost her beloved brother James in the war. Now she is living the life planned for him. Trained to be a lawyer at a time when very few women practiced in England, and serving as the breadwinner for her mother and maiden aunt, Evelyn struggles to make her way in a male milieu.
When The Crimson Rooms begins, the Giffords’ family’s lives are abnormally circumscribed. Despite Evelyn’s obvious ambition and intelligence, she and the other women in her household seem unable to get past James’s death. Their home enshrines his memory, his bedroom kept intact, his cap and blazer still hanging by the door, his memory invoked at every meal. When Meredith Duffy, a Canadian nurse, and her young son Edmund step into this mausoleum, they create chaos in the Giffords’ settled existence. “Yes, he really is so like his father, it’s uncanny,” Meredith announces to Evelyn, who is totally bewildered by the unprecedented appearance. “I’m hoping you might have some photographs of James when he was a child so we can compare father and son at the same age.”
Thus a very alive and present mother and child enter Evelyn’s crimson rooms. At the same time the aftermath of war is intruding on her personal life, her clerkship with Breen & Balcombe’s is leading her into court cases involving the war. One trial, in particular, keeps Breen and his clerk searching for clues from the past. It involves an ex-soldier who is accused of killing his wife. Stephen Wheeler, taciturn and obviously damaged by what he has seen on the front lines, refuses to enter a plea. Rather, he sits silently while the prosecution reconstructs his crime. Evelyn believes Wheeler is innocent, however, and she sets out to find evidence that will acquit their client. In so doing, she enters another figurative set of crimson rooms haunted by the past.
The Crimson Rooms is one of those novels that keep the reader up past midnight. Not only are the plots absolutely fascinating, and obviously intertwined somehow, but Evelyn’s character is a complicated blend of insecurity and professionalism. Watching her develop and grow is every bit as intriguing as solving the mysteries of the novel. I liked The Crimson Rooms so immensely that, even before I finished reading it, I asked Sunny to find more fiction written by Katharine McMahon. I look forward to reading her first two novels, The Rose of Sebastopol and The Alchemist’s Daughter, and look forward to some day reviewing them in “Bookin’ with Sunny.” – Ann Ronald
Also available by Katherine McMahon: Confinement; Footsteps; After Mary; Way Through the Woods.