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The House on Hound Hill

Maggie Prince
Houghton Mifflin, 241 pp

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What happens to experience as it slips constantly out of the present and into memory? Does it vanish into thin air, into history books? Or, if it is especially rich in fear or horror or joy, does it somehow imprint itself on the world, so that, occasionally, it can be reglimpsed? That's the question asked by The House on Hound Hill, which marks first US publication for popular British author Maggie Prince.

Sixteen-year-old Emily is miserable. Her parents are divorcing, and she and her mother and brother have moved to an unfamiliar London neighborhood, into a small house that retains bits and pieces of the seventeenth-century structure that preceded it. Emily hates her new school and misses her friends, and is dismayed by the fact that her mother seems to be attracted to the man next door. She feels trapped, stuck in a situation beyond her control.

But there are worse things than personal unhappiness. Emily is haunted by the feeling that there's something terrible in her brother's room--not something she can see or hear, but a sense of dread, a "hollowness waiting to be filled." And odd things begin to happen. Who is Seth, the strangely-dressed young man who knocks on her back door one afternoon, looking for his cat? Why does he appear inside her house a few nights later, dazed and desperate, speaking of being imprisonment and murder? Why, on a perfectly ordinary street at twilight, does it seem to Emily that she has slipped back into the past--into plague-infested, seventeenth-century London, with its dead carts and starving beggars and quarantined houses? And could it really be that the plague is breaking out now, in present-day London?

The House on Hound Hill is a suspenseful, atmospheric book. The past doesn't vanish, Prince tells us--the present is only layered over it, like Emily's modern house built around its Elizabethan fireplace, and sometimes, when need or distress is very great, people can slip back or forward. Like her heroine, Prince moves easily between the centuries, portraying the miseries of plague-stricken London as effectively as Emily's more contemporary difficulties. The story is told in present tense, a stylistic choice that lends immediacy to the action, especially the vivid vignettes of seventeenth-century London. If there are a few inconsistencies (the differences in Seth's situation in Emily's various visions of the past don't quite add up) and an unresolved question or two (Seth seems to appear in the present both voluntarily and involuntarily, a difference that's never really addressed), the drive of the story is powerful enough to carry the reader past them.

One note: the book is recommended for readers 10 and up. But the complex story and the plague scenes, which are dark and quite graphic, might make it unsuitable for readers that young.

Copyright © 1998 Victoria Strauss

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