Monday 28 January 2013

The Somnambulist - Essie Fox

(Orion, 2011, 446 pages, ISBN: 9781409121190)

It’s 1881, and seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner, living in London’s East End, seems destined to remain an unwilling helpmate to her widowed mother Maud, a religious militant on a quest to save the souls of the corrupt. Phoebe is more drawn to her beautiful aunt Cissy, once a singer in the music halls, and the woman portrayed in the famous Millais painting 'The Somnambulist'. But Cissy’s life isn’t ‘all music and light’ as Phoebe believes. When tragedy strikes the family, Phoebe must become companion to the wife of enigmatic Nathaniel Samuels if she is to save her home. Shut away in Dinwood Court, deep in the Herefordshire countryside, she begins to uncover secrets about Cissy’s past that will change her life irrevocably.

This is a novel with a distinctly Gothic feel, shot through with lies, love, sex, death and madness. Dinwood Court is a house haunted by shadows of both past and present, a perfect setting for several of the darker – and more audacious – elements of the story. Unlike some of the original Victorian tales, however, Essie Fox provides a balance to this, grounding the novel through her portrayal of late 19th century London and all its realities: music halls, docks, department stores and filthy back street shops; prostitutes, performers and proselytisers. I particularly enjoyed the sections involving the music halls, in which their vibrancy and vivacity came across brilliantly, especially in the characters of Cissy’s friends. All of the major characters are fictional, although there are appearances by the music hall director John Wilton and several of his acts, and some characters are based on real figures such as P.T. Barnum.

The novel is told largely by Phoebe, an engaging protagonist and a convincing Victorian girl, neither too self-effacing nor too modern in her outlook. Her first person narrative means that the reader is often lulled into sharing her prejudices and misinterpretations, and as a result has the opportunity to share in the way she grows in insight during the course of the novel. Her narration is interspersed with short sections in the third person focusing on Nathaniel Samuels. I wasn’t expecting this and wondered how well it would work overall, but the transitions were seamless and the technique really added to the novel, fleshing out Samuels’ character and providing backstory that complemented Phoebe’s narration, often adding to the suspense.     

The narrative occasionally winds back on itself as Phoebe arrives at a certain point and only afterwards relates how she got there – I found this a little disconcerting at first, but soon got used to it. The prose itself is reminiscent of a Victorian style, with precise descriptions and long sentences that repay close attention. All the senses come into play in this novel, creating a rich world, and one which the author isn’t afraid to tell us is sometimes really rather foul. This goes for the prejudices of the time as well, with extensive anti-Jewish sentiment being an important aspect of the novel. Ultimately, like the painting of the title, the novel presents both light and dark, danger and security, fear and self-belief; and the journey through them all is a satisfying one.

The book also contains questions for reading groups, extensive historical notes discussing features such as the music halls and contemporary attitudes to Jews, and an interview with the author. 

Compelling Gothic tale of love, loss, sin and redemption set in 1880s England.

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