House of Secrets, the first book in a series by Dulwich author Jennie Walters, follows a year in the life of a working class girl in the 1900s. The author has turned the typical adults' upstairs-downstairs tale into an attractive children's book, opening a door to the world of a 14-year-old Polly Perkins, a new maid at a large manor house. Polly is thrown into an unfamiliar environment of harsh workloads and sharp mistresses. However, just as she is beginning to settle down and find her feet, she discovers a shocking secret that serves to undo the familiarity she has sought to build up throughout the time she has been working at the house.
One of the most engaging aspects of the book is the depth Walters creates through authentic characterisation and setting. The contrast between strict and spiteful Jemima and the kind, supporting Iris invokes understanding and sympathy for Iris and Polly. To support the underlying historical background the author has clearly researched the context of the story thoroughly, which is evident in details of servant life. A particular strength of the novel as a children's book are the intimate details of working class life, such as the revelation that they used to mop the floor with teabags. These details make it a more interesting read.
Extracts from literature written in the early twentieth century and quoted at the beginning of each chapter are related to later plot developments. Not only are they again evidence of the research and thought that as gone into the book, they make the chapter each chapter meaningful. They also act as a reminder that there were people who lived their lives as servants and mistresses and would abide by the strict rules set out by the extracts; this validates the harsh treatment Polly receives throughout the book.
Walters skilfully chose to use first person narrative to tell the story, strengthening it because it is told through the eyes of a young girl the age of the target audience of 11 to 13-year-olds. Through this tale one comes to understand the role of the servant in those times and, although the plot line is hardly new, strong character development will provide a good basis for series. I thought this book was a well written, enjoyable read, and believe Jennie Walters has left issues open to answer in the sequel, which explains the slight lack of exciting adventure needed in a book for this target audience.