Last month was the 100 year anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic. I was on a Titanic frenzy in April, reading and watching anything and everything about the ocean liner. This included the novel The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe.
Sibyl Allston lives in 1915 Boston with her widowed father and rambunctious college age brother. She spends her days attending to the household staff, a responsibility she had to take over since her mother’s death. Sibyl lives a pretty lonely life, with a father who keeps to himself mostly and a brother who is off living and studying at Harvard. Her only solace is in visiting a psychic, who reaches out to Sibyl’s mother and sister, both who perished on the Titanic three years prior.
After her brother Harlan is thrown out of school under mysterious circumstances, Sibyl looks to old friend (and once potential lover) Benton Derby to help figure out what is going on with her brother. In the meantime Harlan comes home with a mysterious young woman who introduces Sibyl to a dangerous pastime, visiting the opium dens in Boston. It is while under the influence of this dangerous drug (and handling a small crystal ball like object called a scrying glass that was a gift from her psychic) Sibyl comes to believe that she can see her mother and sister’s last moments on the decks of the Titanic through the glass. But to what length will Sibyl go to catch once last glimpse of her loved ones?
I love historical fiction that entwines different time periods within a story and The House of Velvet and Glass does this beautifully. From the opulent first class decks of the Titanic to the opium dens of China, the book moves seamlessly from one time to another, connecting the stories together like fine threads. The novel has a bit of everything; a potential romance between Sibyl and Benton, the frightening world of opium dens both in late 1800’s Shanghai and 1915 Boston and a little bit of magic with the psychic and her scrying glass.
You can tell that the author did a lot of research when writing this book. I especially enjoyed the chapters in which we see Sibyl’s father, as a young sailor visiting China for the first time, and his own experiences with an opium den in Shanghai. I also enjoyed how the author blended fact and fiction, in particular with the characters on the Titanic. I loved envisioning Sibyl’s sister Eulah dancing with Harry Widener, a book collector and actual Titanic passenger who perished that fateful night (and who is also the namesake of the Widener library at Harvard, donated by his mother who survived the tragedy).
I also want to mention the book cover, as it was what I was initially drawn to when I saw the book in the store. It is a beautiful cover and conveys the story nicely. Between the very fashionable profile of the woman, the scrying glass and the iconic image of the Titanic inside the glass I knew this was a book I wanted to read.
On another note, I was lucky enough to meet Katherine Howe at a book signing at BEA a few years ago, where she signed a copy of her first book The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. It has been lingering on my bookshelf since then, but I am sure to pick it up after reading this book as I very much enjoyed the author’s writing style. To find out more about Katherine Howe, you can visit her website here.