I was intrigued by the premise of this novel. In the 1870s, a young woman is horribly murdered after her husband and neighbours take her for a fairy changeling. Stung into action, her London cousin comes north to Yorkshire to challenge these country superstitions and to uncover what really happened to little Lizzie Higgs. Having just finished reading The Essex Serpent, I hoped for a similarly deft conflict between popular belief and scientific reason. This juxtaposition is at the heart of the novel, but it didn’t quite pan out as expected. Instead, the book ambitiously tried to combine several genres – crime, fantasy, horror, supernatural and psychological thriller – without ever really committing to any of them.
Our narrator, Albie, meets his cousin Elizabeth only once: at the Great Exhibition in 1851. She is charming but countrified: the daughter of his mother’s sister who married beneath her. After a day of light flirtation they part, never to meet again, and yet something about this pretty girl lodges deep in Albie’s heart. Her grace; her simplicity; her beautiful singing voice… he briefly glimpses a future where they might have married. But that can never be, because their social station is so different, and instead time races on. When we next meet Albie, he is working in his father’s company and has been married for almost two years to the calm, serene Helena. But when he learns that Elizabeth – now Lizzie Higgs – has been brutally murdered by her husband Jem, his fondness for his cousin makes a resurgence. He sets off to ensure that justice is done.
But what seems reasonable and obvious in London loses its clarity in the blissful, sun-drenched Yorkshire countryside. Albie finds that Lizzie’s village of Halfoak is a timeless place, tucked away beyond the reach of the railway and slumbering beneath an ancient barrow-mound. It’s the kind of place that seems quaint to a city man, and yet in this idyllic place a woman has been tortured and burned to death on her own hearth by her own husband, following the laws of some horrifyingly outdated belief system. At first Albie strides among the villagers, a man of reason, briskly seeking to understand the world in which poor Lizzie lived and died, hoping both to avenge her and to see her husband damned for the murderer he surely is. And yet, as time passes, he finds himself sinking into a morass of popular customs and beliefs that, one moment, seem like the purest balderdash and yet, the next, seem to smack of something terrifyingly true. When Helena comes to join him, Albie initially thinks that the country air will do them both good, but as time passes he becomes haunted by a terrible suspicion…
Littlewood is very good at conjuring up the atmosphere of a sleepy country village, dazed by the chaff of haymaking in the air and by the burning sun of a late summer. She writes in a 19th-century style, capturing the Yorkshire accent in her prose and she elegantly builds the sense of something wrong and troubling, whose solution seems to lurk tantalisingly within Albie’s reach. But the frustrating thing, for me, was that the promising strands didn’t come together into the powerful, disturbing climax I hoped for. Perhaps I hoped for the wrong things from the book: perhaps it was only ever meant to be suggestive and unsettling, its realities clouded by an increasingly unreliable narrator. But I found the pace a little slow as it wavered towards its conclusion, and I wished that more could have been done with a promising concept that could – and maybe should – have kept me on the edge of my seat.
As it stands, this is a novel that may well pass a few hours on a winter’s night and deliver a few slight shivers. But it seems to make promises to aficionados of many different genres, without truly delivering on any of them or, indeed, delivering a cross-genre resolution that makes a real impact. However, as I said, perhaps I’ve missed something critical, or simply wasn’t in the right mood. It is a well-written novel, no doubt of that, and it just seems a little too influenced by its setting – the outlines softened and hazed by lethargy. I’m going to be very interested to see what others make of this one, though. It’s not an easy book to rate. Amazon, as usual, has a clutch of five-star reviews but I would love to hear the opinion of someone I know and trust. Helen, Isi, Heloise, are you tempted?
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review