Review of ‘What Happened at the Abbey’ by Isobel Blackthorn

Isobel Blackthorn’s new Gothic thriller is an intriguing page-turner. Written from the point of view of two victims, an abused young wife, and a botany student with mental health issues, the reader is taken into a dour Scots home in the Western Highlands at the end of the 19th century.


Blackthorn’s description of the house and setting give the reader a very clear idea of the dilapidated state of the property and the dangerous beauty of its location near a bog, where from the start one suspects something very nasty will happen, if it hasn’t already.

Thanks to the intervention of a Church of England vicar, Ingrid Barker, has escaped her alcoholic husband in southern England and taken the post as housekeeper for the secretive, squabbling McLeod family in the area where she grew up. The role of housekeeper is far beneath Ingrid, but she has no alternatives and a small daughter to care for.

Most of what subsequently occurs is told from Ingrid’s point of view. She is timid and embarrassed by her reduced social standing and, I felt, a natural victim; bullied by her employers and household servants alike. This timidity did become a little wearing at times, I really wanted Ingrid to stand up for herself, but understood why she had lost her self-confidence. Seeing other characters, the aging Mr McCleod, owner of a small distillery, and his three adult children from this restricted point of view meant they remained somewhat flat. We do not learn the siblings’ reasons for being in the house and why they are so antagonistic until towards the final chapter, when the clues and hints and half-told tales Ingrid has been gathering finally explain the tortuous atmosphere in the house.

Blackthorn drops these hints sparingly but it kept me reading into the night. I wanted to know what had happened in the past, and if this put Ingrid in danger. Knowing there were some very unpleasant people under the same roof meant I also feared for the child, Susan’s safety. No spoilers, but the setting and the apparent nature of both family and their servants meant I was waiting for something terrible to happen throughout the book. In this respect it is a compelling read.

Unfortunately, my sense of ‘being there’ was occasionally jolted by modern colloquialisms and a few idiomatic expressions which do not fit with the epoch. As to the plot, there are a few dubious coincidences, but nothing to spoil the story in itself. There was one glaring absence that bothered me, however; Ingrid acquires the post through her church connections, but there is no mention of religious observance in the McLeod household, which in those days, even in remote locations, did not ring true. The bossy cook reads the Bible with Susan, but we do not know if she is Church of Scotland or a Presbyterian, which mattered a great deal then. There are also a few incorrect terms for Protestant clerics that an editor should have picked up.

Having said this, Blackthorn’s writing kept me reading late into the night. If you are looking for quality women’s fiction or an escapist mystery for a winter fireside read, What Happened at the Abbey fits the bill.


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