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.

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