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21 February 2023

#Review - The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

Book "The Whispering Muse" by Laura Purcell. All monochrome. Around the edges of the cover we see flowers in shades of white and grey. In the centre, a dark space - the black background - over which are the author's name (in white) and the title (in red) and the words "Obsession. Superstition. Tragedy".
The Whispering Muse
Laura Purcell
Bloomsbury Raven, 2 February 2023
Available as: HB, 293pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781526627186

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Whispering Muse via Netgalley to consider for review.

The Whispering Muse is an absolutely top-rate historical horror which makes some trenchant points about women's lives being bent out of shape by the society - and especially the men - around them. As I've come to expect from Purcell, we're given nuanced, layered horror, deeply coiled around human lives and circumstances - but also, moments of shocking, scary climax as those human lives crumple and break. It's a heady mixture, making every page both a 'must read' and a 'dare I read?'

Jenny is trying to hold together her family - comprising only her younger brothers and sisters, as their parents are both dead - and is desperate for any work she can get. An offer of a role as a dresser at the Mercury Theatre comes as welcome news, but it will soon bring Jenny face to face with divided loyalties, the prospect of ruin, and indeed utter terror when the company embark on a production of 'The Scottish Play'.

All Jenny's problems trace back, in one way or another, to the men around her. Formerly a lady's maid, she lost her place because of the feckless behaviour of one of those men. Another of them, the manager of the theatre. seems to be taking too close an interest in one of the actresses, but inevitably things go wrong and he demands Jenny's help in managing the situation. Meanwhile, his wife also expects Jenny to break up the relationship (or else). And just when it seems things can't get any worse, another man from Jenny's past turns up threatening to break up her little family.

I loved just how complicated things became for Jenny, but particularly her relationship with that actress - Lilith - to whom she's appointed as dresser. The two women have very different outlooks - Lilith daringly Bohemian, ambitious, willing to flout Victorian morality (but, if she wants her career to progress, does she have any choice?) Jenny more conventional, perhaps, as shown when she's told to turn round three times, spit, and swear because she said 'Macbeth' - and she can't bring herself to do it.

The most moving moments of the book, in counterpoint to the gothic horror, are those when these two women are learning to trust one another,  to get to know each other.  That doesn't always turn out well, indeed little in this book turns out well, but possibilities open then, experiences are shared and alternative futures open up.

Those moments of respite never last long, though - there is a drumbeat in The Whispering Muse and it is a drumbeat of terror, horror stalking the theatre and its unfortunate cast and crew. What seems at the start like theatrical whimsy and self-indulgence - I thought of the Blackadder parody of that spitting-and-turning round thing - comes back to claim a price, as events grow progressively darker. That darkness is only pointed up by a sort of disjointed reaction from the wider world to the horror taking place. There is a prurient interest in what happens (not going to spell out what that is because spoilers) but a distinct lack of concern, of empathy, with those affected by it. (An attitude I think sadly true to life, not only of the Victorian era but of those since and up to the present day - it would be easy to imagine the cursed Lilith racking up huge numbers of social media followers, rather than stage door Johnnies, all to abandon her as she crashed and burned).

In the end though, and despite The Whispering Muse deploying quite the tide of gory horror (it features productions of both Faust - in two different versions - and MacBeth) I think it's actually in may respects  hopeful book, both showing ways in which solidarity and fellowship can defeat, or at least elude, power, and celebrating human companionship and love.

For more information about The Whispering Muse, see the publisher's website here.

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