I must admit to being a bit of a fan girl when it comes to Laura Purcell. The mix of historical and gothic fiction is probably my favourite genre, so I had been impatiently awaiting the publication of her latest novel anyway. I jumped at the chance to join the blog tour, because she’s one of my favourites – in fact I had already pre-ordered a signed edition of this two months ago. So I came to it full of anticipation. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter and didn’t put it down. Our narrator is Miss Agnes Darken, living in Bath with her invalid mother and nephew Cedric. Agnes earns her money cutting silhouettes or ‘shades’ for people, but her art is put under threat not just by newer inventions, but by a mysterious killer stalking the people who have sat for her. Desperate for answers, Agnes visits a spirit medium – an albino child named Pearl who lives with her sister Miss Myrtle West, and an invalid father. Agnes and Pearl try to conjure the spirit of one of her murdered sitters, so they can find the killer. Unfortunately, they have underestimated the power of what they have unleashed.
The story is full of little twists and turns that unsettled me and kept me guessing. When Agnes finds the shade she cut of her first sitter with a squashed face, she ends up with the police on her doorstep. She was his last appointment before he was killed and the murder weapon was a mallet, in fact his face is quite ruined. Agnes is shocked, but could perhaps write this off as a coincidence. Maybe she simply caught the silhouette as she closed the book? I thought the awkward relationship with Simon, who is there when the police come, was really interesting. He is Agnes’s friend, but also a doctor and was married to her sister Constance. Yet it is Agnes and her mother who have Cedric, her sister’s son, living with them. I kept wondering how this had happened and it was these awkward relationships and the whiff of scandal that really caught my attention just as much as the supernatural element. Simon is deeply protective of Agnes and her health since she’d had pneumonia a few years previously. Yet there’s another concern underneath, her mental health and whether certain things are ‘too much’ for her delicate nerves.
The horror in Pearl’s household comes from poverty and working in dangerous environments as much as it does the supernatural. Pearl’s father has worked in a match factory and has succumbed to the horrific disease of ‘phossy jaw’ where the phosphorus used for the match heads, eats into the mouth and slowly poisons the victim. The descriptions of being able to see the workings of his jaw and of Simon trying to clean the area and burst abscesses on the gums is visceral and left me far more horrified than the seances held by Pearl and her half-sister Myrtle. Myrtle has named Pearl The White Sylph, which only adds to the air of mystery created by her snowy white hair and skin and the wispy glow of ectoplasm that can be seen emanating from her body when the lights are off. Pearl is exhausted and drained afterwards, and her fear of the spirits who take control of her is obvious. She fears them sitting in her body or speaking through her mouth. It seems her gift is involuntary and all the more genuine for that. When Agnes visits they have no idea what they may summon up together, whether in terms of the spirits or a plan that may prove even more deadly.
Agnes is haunted by her sister whether she visits Pearl or not, but the pair do have something in common; sisters who try to control their lives. Agnes’s sister Constance has wronged her sister terribly in life, but continues to be there in death. I love the tiniest details that are placed by the author to echo the relationship:
‘Agnes scrubs at her eyes with the handkerchief. She has gone through so many of them lately that she’s been forced to use Constance’s old ones; she has picked the initials out but the ghost of the letter C still marks the corner’.
I saw an echo of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca in this, they way her initials are all over the house, marking everything the new wife has to touch. Here it is a way for Constance to be ever present for Agnes. Constance is like Agnes’s shadow, and just like Myrtle and Pearl there is a yin and yang to these sisterhoods. One sister the innocent and other the dominant, rule breaking force. It’s as if they’re two halves making a whole. I enjoyed the description of Constance’s wardrobe towards the end of the book and the bright colours of her gowns contrast strongly with Agnes’s jet black, almost Puritan style of dress. Agnes is giving off that sense of grief and this uniform of mourning can mask who someone is as effectively as a disguise.
I also loved the period detail in the book, not just the clothing, but the etiquette and position of women. Although Agnes struggles financially she does have some measure of freedom and runs her own household. She has Simon, her brother in law, as her protector and because he is a doctor and a widower there is no impropriety in this. However, she does need him for certain things such as talking to the police and dealing with other men, who simply don’t consider a woman as an equal. I also loved the descriptions of Agnes’s craft, the cutting machine that she barely uses in order to keep cutting by hand alive. There is an alchemy in the descriptions of her work, the magical way she’s able put a person’s character into what seems like a very flat, characterless medium. There is a great description of a session with a young man, who admits he would prefer the new- fangled photograph, but his mother prefers the old ways. Photography is a threat to Agnes’s business, and there’s an interesting thought process around the belief that too many photographs could diminish you as each photograph takes a bit of your soul.
‘Part of your soul would remain forever imprisoned in the glass lens. Sit for too many and you might be depleted. More alive in the photograph than in real life.’
I thought that could be my thought process when I’m worrying about my niece or stepdaughter’s ‘addiction’ to social media. I like to take breaks from social media, but I sometimes worry that they’re so obsessed with their online personas that they miss out on what’s actually happening in real life. Social media is an edited or even purposely cultivated idea of who we are, not our real selves. It’s good to hear that each generations worries about the same things.
This is an excellent gothic mystery, that grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. I thought the characters were well developed and fascinating – even the ones who are no longer there! I liked that were transgressive females who had their own agency and independence. I enjoyed the author’s sense of place, the evil portents like the magpies and the build up of tension. I also liked the contrast between those living in poverty and those with a more middle class lifestyle. The supernatural elements are always spooky with Purcell, so the seances and visitations are unsettling, but so are the real life people. As the mystery deepens you won’t be able to stop reading, because you’ll have to know what’s going on. There’s a saying we use about timid people – afraid of your own shadow – and that’s what this book does, it makes us afraid of what others might see in us, and who we can become in the dark. An utterly brilliant addition to Laura Purcell’s work.
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Meet The Author
Laura Purcell is a former bookseller. She now lives in Colchester with her husband and their pet guinea pigs. Her first novel for Raven Books, The Silent Companions was a Radio 2 and Zoe Ball ITV book club choice. It was also the winner of the Thumping Good Read award. Her next novels The Corset and Bone China have cemented her reputation as the queen of the spooky but sophisticated page turner.