17 September 2019

Review - Bone China by Laura Purcell

Cover design by David Mann
Bone China
Laura Purcell
Raven Books, 19 September 2019
HB, e, 448pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of Bone China via NetGalley.

'You would never dream of what goes on behind those walls.'

This latest of Laura Purcell's spooky historical thrillers, following from The Silent Companions and The Corset,  opens with young Hester Why squashed into a stagecoach, travelling into the West Country. Apart from the difficulties caused by six people being crammed into space for four, she suffers from an early version of a very modern problem ('a brute beast of a man is spreading his legs') and thirsts for her gin flask. It's a bit of a nightmare, which ends when another passenger is hurt and Hester is the only one who steps forward to care for him.

Which isn't the right thing for a woman travelling alone to do, in the early 19th century, and only draws attention to her, which is worse. Hester needs to keep a low profile, for reasons we will discover later - but first we see her introduced to Morvoren House, a chilly clifftop residence where she will care for a mistress in declining health, Miss Pinecroft, and a strange younger woman, Mis Pinecroft's ward, Rosewyn.

Purcell lays on the Gothic touches with delight when it comes to Morvoren House. There are mysterious sounds in the night, superstitious locals, a self-absorbed, almost speechless old woman - and Rosewyn, who spends her time tearing up Bibles to make protective charms. There are surly servants and there are secrets - those belonging to the house, and those Hester brings with her. Above all, there is the threat of the fairies, and the fear that they will carry off a young woman in the night.

The mysteries of Morvoren House can only be understood if we go back 40 years, to the arrival of Louise and her father, Ernest. The rest of the family have died of consumption: a double blow for Ernest who, as a doctor, was unable to save his own. It becomes clear that Ernest is haunted by guilt,  and he sets out to defeat the disease, performing experiments on convicts in caves deep below the house.

The mysteries of Hester Why can only, similarly, be understood if we go back several months to a house in Hanover Square, London, where young Esther Stevens takes up a new post as nurse to Lady Rose Windrop. A sympathetic character, Esther nevertheless has a whiff of the dark about her, and Sir Arthur Windrop soon has cause to ponder the series of deaths that seems to follow her... in many respects I found this section of the novel the most absorbing. There is a real tension between Esther and Lady Rose's severe mother-in-law, a real issue around Esther's (and her mother's) knowledge of midwifery and their rivalry with (masculine) medicine. Esther's somewhat brooding, obsessive nature is piqued by her closeness to Lady Rose and the reader senses many currents just below the surface. This part of the story could, in fact, almost stand as a novel in itself and I thought it was a slight shame that it needed to be truncated so that it could serve as Hester's backstory.

The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Ernest and Louise's story. More wholeheartedly Gothic, and more of a piece with the "present day" narrative, theirs in nevertheless a tale of loss, grief and Romantic 19th century obsessiveness.

Yet I wouldn't, I think, see these stories unplanned and presented one by one. That would be like cutting up a book of Blake's poems to present each alone on the wall. Read together, the impact of these related episodes is more than their sum. We see, for example, in Esther and Louise, two capable young women who in a different age would be doctors. ('You were born to the wrong sex, my dear'). Indeed, Louise has surpassed her doctor father. We also see, ion different forms, the effects of grief and (if I'm not wrong) post-natal depression (perhaps more than one example of the latter). The metaphor of china also appears, slyly, here and there. It's something Purcell will make a great deal of in the concluding section where the rather unique collection displayed in Miss Pinecroft's sitting room seems to have a life of its own, but earlier we see Lady Rose as '...a porcelain figure... a wife was prized for smoothness and lustre'. In the selection or rejection of china as a gift Purcell encodes relationships: something given to a daughter but clearly chosen for a dead wife, or a service rejected when it offends the mystical tenets of class and taste.

And the bone china, too, has its dark secrets...

I loved this story, the darkness in each part, the hint, almost, of sulphur attaching to Hester, her combination of both a vulnerable and wronged young woman and a person who knows things, who brings her own will and her own plans with her. Miss Pinecroft was an enigma, seems ugly a slight character manipulated by others but one whom again, ultimately has inner strength and power. But almost every character here is strongly drawn and complex (apart perhaps from the clergyman, but there's a bit of humour in that!)

Strongly recommended. Get your copy now and read it when the wind gets up and the nights are dark...

For more about the book, and to order it, see the publisher's website here.

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