Bone China (2019): Laura Purcell

★★★

It is a freezing winter night, early in the 19th century. Hester Why arrives in Cornwall on the mail coach, a hunted woman travelling under an assumed name and tormented by memories of her recent life as a lady’s maid in London. She has seized upon a new position as a maid and nurse to the reclusive Miss Pinecroft at Morvoren House, which stands on a wild and lonely outcrop above the cave-riddled cliffs. Here she hopes to find peace, recover her equilibrium and restore her faith in herself, but she soon realises that Morvoren is haunted by its own ghosts and secrets. Half paralysed by strokes, Miss Pinecroft barely speaks and can only rarely be persuaded to leave the chill of her favoured room, the china cabinet. Her ward, the unfortunate Rosewyn, is still babied and dressed as a child despite being a fully-grown woman. And the household is dominated by the sinister Creeda, who sees the Little People – fairies – and their dangers everywhere. A story of reason and delusion, faith and science, this is a fantastically atmospheric novel, but one that also leaves some frustrating questions hanging in the balance.

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The Corset (2018): Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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The Silent Companions (2017): Laura Purcell

★★★½

When a young widow travels to her dead husband’s family home, after only a few months of marriage, she believes that her greatest challenge will be in mastering her grief. But The Bridge is an unsettling place: a rambling old house, unloved and worn, with a meagre staff of taciturn servants and a history of unpleasant accidents. This is a Gothic tale of a slow, creeping kind, best savoured on a dark winter’s night beside the fire, in which supernatural events sit side by side with very real social tension.

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