Concept: ★★★★★ – The concept of this book was well thought out and very unique. “Lost Among the Living” is set in 1921, a few years following the first World War. The author artfully twines a novel that expertly addresses issues that were active in Europe, while spinning a tale of a not-quite-widow and the challenges she faces after her husband disappears in the war. Weave in a ghost, a family full of secrets, and a house with footsteps that follow people down an empty hallway; then you have yourself a novel!
Writing: ★★★★★ – As always, I was very much a fan of St. James writing. The language and rhetoric style she chooses to use in her historical novels is delectable. Perhaps my favorite part of reading her novels is imagining the amount of research she may have had to complete to accurately write a story from a different decade. Another amazing attribute that she possesses is her capability to write a fiction novel around challenges that were very real and present in the post-Great War era.
Character Development: ★★★★☆ – As always, St. James has a way of gradually introducing characters throughout the entire novel. I feel as though this is what sucks me so deeply into her stories, the fact that I get to know characters at their deepest levels as I read. The only character that I found to be less developed in this novel was the villain. I felt as though it made his role obvious, but perhaps that’s just me.
Plot: ★★★★★ – A not-quite-widowed woman, a recovering addict, a lonely woman, and a mysteriously dead little girl, all woven together into a novel that develops slowly into a page-turning novel. With so much activity, it was hard to keep up at times! The author expertly stitched together a breathtaking and nightmare giving read!
Pacing: ★★★★☆ – The greatest downfall to this book was when the main character said, “Things moved quickly after that.” Even though the book was attention grasping and full of endless twists, I really was frustrated that St. James couldn’t come up with a less obvious transition to the climax and end of the story.
Ending: ★★★★★ – The ending was, well, short and sweet – and, boy, do I mean sweet! The bad guy was proven guilty and the good guys lived on, happier than before. The only one who didn’t get the happy ending is the little girl who was long ago passed. Of course, if you want to know who the bad guy is, I suggest reading the book or checking out the spoilers below!
Overall Rating: ★★★★☆
Three years after Jo Manders’ husband disappeared while flying during the First Great War, she’s working as his aunt Dottie Forsyth’s companion. Ironically, while Alex – her husband – was still alive, Jo had never had the pleasure (if you can call it that) of meeting his aunt or her family. However, right when Jo was on the verge of running out of finances, his aunt had reached out, saying she needed a companion while traveling the country.
As our story begins, the ladies’ travel is ending and they are on their way to return to the Wych Elm House. On their way to their destination, Jo takes a day to visit her mother who is mentally unwell. While she visits her, we learn of the financial burden her care is to Jo. However, like many children would, Jo continues to care for her mother because she feels as though she has to. Her father was virtually non-existent, as Jo didn’t even know whom he was, and that left Jo as the only remaining relative.
She meets up with Dottie and boards the ferry to Dottie’s home in the countryside. When they arrive, Jo is taken aback by the state of the home. It’s empty, as none of the family has resided there since Dottie’s daughter, Frances, took her life by jumping off the roof. Consequently, the home is being cleaned by newly hired staff upon the women’s arrival. In the dining room, Dottie’s husband, Robert, is sitting. Within moments of observing their interactions, Jo can tell that their marriage is rocky. That fact is later confirmed when she learns that they don’t sleep in the same room.
Jo quickly settles into her room and comes back to the parlor to find a girl sitting there in a grey dress, with a string of pearls around her neck. She attempts to approach her but is startled by a maid. When she turns back to the girl, she’s gone. Jo consoles herself, insisting that she didn’t really see an apparition; insisting that she was not mentally insane, like her mother.
Later in the day, after hearing another argument between Dottie and Robert, Jo is instructed to go into the village nearby to run some errands for Dottie and to buy a few new dresses that were more fashionable than the clothes she already had. When she goes into Anningley, she discovers that the town is a float with rumors. From the post lady, she learns that Frances was locked up in a room and chained to a wall, for she was insane. However, she then meets Mr. Wylde, Dottie’s financial advisor, who insists that Frances was not suicidal, for her insanity was caused by the unliving things that came through the door – why on earth would she want to join them?
She returns home to the arrival of Martin Forsyth, Alex’s cousin. When he exclaims how excited he is to meet her and how he’s so glad he came home to be married, she realizes that everything has gone abruptly wrong. His father, as always, is nonchalant and cynically making comments. The next day when Jo and Martin go for a walk, she tells him that she simply can’t marry him – even if she wanted to, she was not technically a widow since Alex’s remains had never been found.
As she continues to wander the Wych Elm House, she hears eerie footsteps when she’s alone and conveniently gets her room destroyed. Only upon visiting the photographer in town does she confirm that the ghostly girl from the parlor was indeed Frances. Instead of being solely terrified, Jo starts to wonder about whether or not Frances had killed herself.
As time wears on, Jo continues to assist Dottie and befriend Martin. She learns of his morphine addiction, his relationship with his sister, his relationship with Alex, and finally, his lack of desire to live. Between getting to know Martin and seeking out the truth in Frances death, Jo is rather busy. Yet, when she finds Dottie in Frances’s room, she learns much more than she ever wanted to know.
See, the day that Frances had died, Alex had been at the house. Only, Jo wasn’t aware of this until Dottie shared. Soon, everything she had known about Alex becomes questionable. Then the mysterious Colonel Mabry arrives, claiming to be in town for military reasons that relate to a distant boathouse. Jo realizes that he may be her chance to find out what had truly happened to her husband, so she asks him to try to find Alex’s file and obtain it from the War Office.
When he does, she has Martin accompany her and heads to the Inn that Colonel Mabry is staying at. Immediately after he hands her Alex’s file, she knows something is off. This is because the file contains Alex’s passport photo – that isn’t common practice for military files.
More confused than ever, she returns to the house. Then one morning, as she is venturing through the woods, she crosses paths with Robert. He’s driving home – as he does frequently since he purposefully doesn’t spend the night at the Wych Elm House – and stops to speak with her. What begins as awkward flirting turns into violence, especially after Jo notices Frances with a sour expression, ghostly standing nearby.
The pace quickens after that. Finally coming to terms with Jo’s ineligibility to marry her son, Dottie has found him another suiter named Cora. Once Cora’s family arrives, Jo’s life becomes a mixture of chaperoning and trying to please Dottie. One morning, while accompanying Cora and Martin on their walk, Jo goes out to a seaside cliff to take some photos.
It’s on this day that it is revealed that Jo received a note that said her mother had passed peacefully in her sleep. Mourning her loss, Jo goes to the cliff that she can see the boathouse from. She rereads the note and stands on the cliff as the wind blows. When she meets back with Cora and Martin, it isn’t a surprise that they’re engaged.
After taking a day to ensure her mother was properly buried, Jo returns home to full wedding shenanigans. On the morning of the engagement party, she ventures to the same cliff that overlooks the boathouse and continues to watch the boats, unshocked that she doesn’t seem to see any military vessels – leading her to question Colonel Mabry’s presence even further.
She does see Frances, though, and becomes shocked when Frances whistles for her attack dog – her demon protector, Princer. Assuming she’s in danger, Jo attempts to escape. Yet, when she falls down the beast jumps right over her. She attempts to take photos of him, but when she returns to Wych Elm House, the camera is sabotaged and the film is ruined. Cora happens upon her in the kitchen, and noticing her disheveled state, assists her with a bath.
At the engagement party, Jo dances with Mr. Wylde and Colonel Mabry. However, while dancing she notices that the family has all exited the ballroom. Concerned that something had happened to Martin, she seeks them out. Upon finding them, she immediately notes that Martin is okay – as he sits facing her – but there is another person in the room… Alex.
After running from him – because his dead-self has haunted her dreams – she joins him as he recants a bullshit story of his falling ill and being mistaken for a German and being held there. Jo has already done enough research to negate his tale and leaves for her room. He follows and tells her the true story – how he had lived at the Wych Elm House as a boy, how he had noticed military ships going to and from the boathouse, how he had been recruited by Colonel Mabry for secret services, how he had quit right after he met Jo, and how, during the war, Colonel Mabry had convinced him to follow his orders and disappear into Germany as a spy.
Jo is furious and asks him to leave. She awakes the next morning to find him with her. Frustrated, she attempts to go to town by herself and he insists on joining her. While talking in the motorcar, they find that they are both trying to find Frances murderer, but for different reasons. It turned out that Frances’s sketches of the boathouse had been sold to the Germans. Alex was here to find the one who stole them and sold them, assuming that the person who did that was also the person who killed his dear cousin.
As their relationship recovers, both seek to find an answer. On the day that Martin runs away from home and elopes to Cora, they find their answer. They arrive home to an empty house – as Dottie has fleed after Martin, although he told her not to. They are caught off guard by Robert, who admits that he killed Frances (after the hitman he hired had failed) and that he was going to kill them, too. Much to all of their shock, Dottie returns and saves the day, finally realizing that she needed to obey her son’s wishes.
Grab your own copy of “Lost Among the Living” here!