Excerpt from The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The House on Vesper Sands

by Paraic O'Donnell

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell X
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell
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    Jan 2021, 408 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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Print Excerpt

February 1893

In Half Moon Street, just as she came near to the house, Esther Tull felt the first gentleness of the snow.

She paused at the front steps, setting down her case and extending a gloved hand to the railing. It was not that she felt weak, though she had feared she might. The pain was returning, but it was not yet more than she could bear. It was only that she wanted to look up. The longing was small and simple, and it came to her the moment the first flakes touched her cheek. How delicate they felt. Tender, almost, in the rawness of the air. As a child, Esther had felt a peculiar wonder when it snowed. It was like an enchantment, altering the world and making it quiet. She wanted to lift her face, as she had done then, to the soft tumble of smudges crowding the darkness.

She resisted the urge. She would not look up. There was no joy in such things now. Not in this place, on this of all nights. Instead, taking her left hand from the railing, Esther tugged her right free of its glove. She turned it cautiously, offering her cupped palm to the air, closing her eyes as she waited. A faintness that was almost nothing, then a tiny ache of cold.

At the front door, she collected herself before raising her hand to ring. She looked about her, considering. The servants' entrance would have been more usual, but for some time now she had been directed not to use it. Esther was given no explanation for this practice and knew better than to inquire further. She twisted the brass turn to sound the bell. Some time would pass, as always, before Mr. Carew saw fit to admit her. No doubt he could bestir himself when the occasion demanded it, but as she turned in from Piccadilly she had heard the striking of half past eight from St. James's. At this hour no other callers would be expected. Not at this house.

When he appeared at last, he greeted her in his usual fashion, lowering his chin in its swaddle of jowls and raising his hand before he spoke to conceal some imagined cough.

"Well, Miss Tull." He glanced at the air above her. "That is a bad dose of weather you have brought. We must hope it will not delay His Lordship's return."

Esther said nothing in reply. She stood just as she was on the top step, waiting until he should bid her come in. Mr. Carew gazed out into the street a moment longer, then returned his attention to her, as if remembering that she was present. Stooping towards her, he made a show of plucking something from her coat, examining his fingertips as he drew them away.

"Come along, Miss Tull." He adjusted his bulk, making just enough room to let her pass. "You will be no good to us perished upon the steps."

Esther followed him through the grand entrance hall, where objects particularly prized by Lord Strythe were mounted on pedestals or loomed in dim recesses. She had never cared to examine these closely, or thought it her place to do so. She was usually conducted without ceremony to the servants' stairs at the rear of the house. But Mr. Carew paused now before a vacant plinth.

"His Lordship waits upon Lady Ashenden this evening, who is giving a gala ball in his honour. It is to be a grand affair, by all accounts. You will recall the specimen that was mounted here?"

Esther looked in discomfort at the pedestal.

"I'm sure you would, if you saw it again," Mr. Carew said. "It is a rare bird, Miss Tull, a most notable creature, His Lordship says, that was found in Manchuria or some such place. It has a proper name, but you would have no use for that. It is very like a phoenix, I am told. A great prize, even in such a collection as his. Do you think you could name the price of it?"

With both hands, Esther clasped the handle of her sewing case. Her discomfort had sharpened, though she hoped she gave no sign of it. She shook her head.

"Come now." Mr. Carew placed his feet a little apart and thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers. It was an unseemly posture, but he felt quite at liberty in her presence. She averted her face.

Excerpted from The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell. Copyright © 2021 by Paraic O'Donnell. Used with the permission of the publisher, Tin House. Copyright © 2020 by Paraic O'Donnell.

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