In the dark streets of early 19th-century Holborn, people are disappearing. Men, women and children vanish on their way home from work or after a pint in the pub. As the smogs thicken in the narrow streets, orphaned Hester White studies the handbills pasted up on the dank walls, begging for news of lost loved ones. It’s a bleak time to be poor in London and, when Hester suffers an accident near Smithfield Market, and is swept off for recuperation in the house of a wealthy surgeon, she thinks that she has escaped the dark belly of the underworld once and for all. Little does she know that she is only being drawn deeper into danger. A tale of Gothic threat and forbidden love, this novel reads like a cross between Sarah Waters and Grand Guignol.
Born and bred in a quiet Lincolnshire village, Hester has become used to her new home: a bleak and chilly cellar in the bowels of London, where she lives with her dead parents’ former gardener and his wife. Pickled by gin and embittered by circumstance, her ‘Uncle’ Jacob has fallen into bad company, but his wife Meg strives to protect Hester from the vicissitudes of his temper. Hester herself dreams of a better life, where she can use her bright mind and education, but these dreams can come true in the most unexpected way. While waiting at Smithfield in the hope of meeting a distant relative, she is hit by a carriage. The occupant is Calder Brock, a dynamic, handsome young man with medical training, who sweeps her off to his townhouse – and then to his country estate at Waterford – for recuperation. Hester warms to Calder’s friendliness, but at Waterford she is put in the care of his bluestocking sister Rebekah. Yet, as time goes on, formidable Rebekah proves to be kinder and more admirable than Hester had ever dared to hope.
It looks as though our heroine has fallen on her feet, and Hester hopes her new connections might lead to a better future. But all is not well in the Brock household. Calder’s spendthrift uncle Septimus broods in the shadows like an old spider; there are unexplained disappearances among the staff; and, at the heart of all of it, stands Rebekah: noble, fierce, wonderful Rebekah, with whom Hester falls rapidly – hopelessly – inevitably – in love. But her turbulent emotions are further unsettled when she overhears Rebekah speaking dismissively of her to a visitor, followed by the appearance of an anonymous note, pushed under Hester’s door, warning her to leave if she values her life. And so she flees back into the seething pit of London poverty, only to realise that she is now bound to the Brock family and will never truly be free.
Carlin’s story is a colourful pastiche of the Victorian novel, stuffed with highly-coloured prose, melodrama and coincidences that stretch one’s suspension of disbelief. She writes with flair, her present-tense first-person narrative giving the novel a momentum that keeps it bowling merrily along. Emotions are magnified; there’s enough intrigue, murder and general skulduggery to keep a London police chief busy for a year. It is certainly an extremely readable book. But it feels very much like part of a genre: there are moments, for example, where it feels like an overly close cousin to Fingersmith. Perhaps it felt so familiar because I’ve read too much Sarah Waters with a side order of Penny Dreadful and a dash of Dickens. (Carlin’s names feel particularly Dickensian, especially that of the horrible Frederick Blister.)
Nevertheless, I’d stress that it is all done well, and with a sensitive ear to the slang and cadence of the time; so if you fancy a bit of glooming Victorian drama, this could well be just the ticket. It was just a little too highly seasoned for my taste. That isn’t to take away from Carlin’s abilities as a writer: her prose is so enjoyably fluid that I’ll be interested to see where she takes her talents next.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review