Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

I've been a follower of the author's Virtual Victorian blog for some time, so was eagerly anticipating the arrival of this book. It's got a gorgeous cover which drew admiring glances as I sat on the train for two days last week reading it.

Phoebe lives with her militant Christian mother Maud and singer/actress aunt Cissy. The two older women are so different there is constant tension between them. Phoebe goes with Cissy to watch her perform at a music hall, and there spies a strange but enigmatic man whom her aunt seems to know well. Soon after, Cissy dies. The stranger, Nathaniel Samuels is discovered to be someone Cissy had a relationship with long ago, and who owns the house Phoebe and Maud live in. Maud disapproves of this man, but when he offers a position in his household as companion to his sick wife to Phoebe, they accept. Long buried secrets gradually reveal themselves in this deliciously gothic novel. The title refers both to an actual painting by Millais, which in the novel is owned by Cissy and looks very like her, and to the fact that the lives of the principle characters were all determined by a tragic accident which happened while Nathaniel Samuels' daughter was sleepwalking.

I'd pre-ordered this book and read it almost as soon as it arrived. It didn't disappoint. I loved the plot with its various twists and turns, and the settings - London's east end, Hyde Park Gate, rural Herefordshire - really came alive. The book is populated with well-drawn and larger than life characters. It's beautifully researched and as with all good historical novels, at the end I felt I'd learned something more about the era in which it is set.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Unseen

The Unseen by Katherine Webb

This is the author's second book. I loved her first book, The Legacy, and bought this one after Amazon sent one of those annoying emails telling me I might like it. (Actually they were right. Marketing does work.)

This is exactly the type of book I want to write myself. There are two linked stories unfolding - one in 2011 and one in 1911. In the present day, a well-preserved WW1 soldier's body has been uncovered in a Belgian peat bog. A sealed tin in his pocket contains a couple of intriguing letters. Journalist Leah tries to find out his identity and the story behind the letters, while also dealing with some demons from her own past. In 1911, Hester (the writer of the letters) is living in a sex-less marriage with her vicar husband. Her household contains Cat, a suffragette maidservant with secrets of her own, and a house-guest who is a leading expert on theosophy. He and the vicar are convinced there are fairies in the nearby water meadows.

The novel jumps back and forth between the two time periods, each chapter ending at a point where you just have to read on, no matter how late it's getting. The setting is an old rectory near Thatcham in Berkshire. I used to live in Reading and am fairly well acquainted with the location. It's always an added bonus when a novel's setting comes alive for you, as this one did.

For lovers of historical novels, this one's a corker. Thoroughly recommended. I'm looking forward to the author's next one.