The Blurb On The Back:
We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort because WE are the bad sort …
The year is 1831. Down the murk alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and no one is willing to speak out on behalf of the city’s vulnerable poor as they disappear from the streets.
Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible …
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s 1831 in London, England.
Having spent an idyllic childhood in Lincolnshire with her mother and parson father, Hester White was orphaned six years ago and forced to move to London with Jacob (her late father’s gardener) and his wife, Meg. Fortune has not favoured the trio and they have slowly descended into living in squalid conditions in Shoreditch. Hester knows that Jacob is making a dishonest living at night but does not inquire into his affairs given that he divides his time between drinking gin, sleeping with prostitutes and beating Meg. Besides, she doesn’t like to talk to him too much now, not since he started looking at her in a sexual way when she turned 18 years old. Meg picks up money by caring for the sick and Hester, who is able to write, adds to the funds by copying manuscripts on request.
Desperate for something more from life, she thinks she finds it when she hears that she has a distant cousin called Edward who is expected to come to Smithfield Market with some cattle drovers. She’s been going regularly to the Market to look for him in the hope that he will be able to put in a good word for her and find her work and lodging back in Lincolnshire, but it’s been 3 weeks now and no one seems to have seen him. She’s noticed the posters going up around Smithfield and the East End for people who have gone missing – just disappeared without a trace – and although Meg tells her not to worry, she does fear the worst.
It’s during a trip to Smithfield that her life changes forever when she is hit by an out-of-control horse and carriage and badly breaks her leg. Fortunately the carriage’s occupant is Calder Brock, a handsome young doctor doctor dedicated to perfecting his medical skills and helping the poor. He takes her to the country house of Waterford Hall, which belongs to his uncle, Septimus Brock and where his elder sister, 28-year-old Rebekah lives.
Convinced that Hester is illiterate (not least because Hester realises that staying quiet about her abilities could help her to escape London for good if Calder will help her to find a position and give her a reference), he persuades Rebekah to teach Hester to read and write so that she might better her position and escape poverty. Although the servants warn Hester that Rebekah was unnaturally close her maids (both of whom have since disappeared in murky circumstances), Hester is instantly drawn to Rebekah and what she at first saw as a means to escape her circumstances soon becomes something much more as she becomes more emotionally attached to her.
When Hester learns that Rebekah has been conducting her own inquiries into what happened to her former maids, she is keen to help, convinced that the disappearances are linked to the people who went missing in London. But there will be misunderstandings and peril as the two women work to discover what happened that drives them into the worst of the London slums while also uncovering uncomfortable truths about themselves and the worlds they come from as they learn that there is no one they can trust and nowhere that they will be safe …
Laura Carlin’s debut novel is a gothic historical thriller that effectively recreates the squalor of the 1830s but relies heavily on credibility-defying contrivance to drive the plot. The romance between Hester and Rebekah doesn’t convince due to its ‘insta love’ beginnings and the failure of either woman to question it in the context of the period. Ultimately this just wasn’t for me and I can’t say I’d rush to read Carlin’s other work.
I picked this up because I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction set in the 1830s and am always a sucker for a good thriller, especially given the suggestion in the blurb on the back that this has connections to the body snatchers who plied their trade during the period. The best thing about the book is that Carlin has clearly done a lot of research on the period and what it meant to be living in poverty during it. The opening chapter where Hester describes waking up in the squalid lodgings she shares with Jacob and Meg are horrifying and effective and the one thing I did believe was Hester’s desperation to do whatever it took to escape from it, even if it meant misleading her saviours in a bid to better her own position. There are similarly lots of little period details through the book that throw up the differences between the well off and the poor and highlight the snobbish attitudes that the wealthy had to those who had fallen on hard times – most notably the scenes where Hester overhears discussions between Calder, Septimus and Rebekah.
Equally Carlin does a good job of setting out the difficulties faced by women in this time, even well-off women like Rebekah who basically need to find a husband in order to stand any chance of making their own way or having any control over their destiny. As such, I did believe in Rebekah’s frustrations at being essentially at the mercy of her uncle, who is in turn frustrated by her failure to find a wealthy husband to take her off his hands. Given that Rebekah is shown as being just as intelligent as Calder and yet denied a role that would allow her to pursue intellectual pursuits, I did find her a sympathetic character and I understood what motivated her throughout the plot because her investigation into what happened to her maids has given her a cause and a chance to demonstrate her intellect.
Where the book fails for me is in the relationship between Rebekah and Hester. I’m not against lesbian romances in historical fiction – far from it – but I do need to believe in the relationship and there simply wasn’t enough here for me to find credible. For starters, Hester is instantly smitten with the older woman but other than stealing her diary in order to spy on her and listening to servant’s gossip, there isn’t a lot of interaction here to understand why she falls in love with Rebekah and the same is true in reverse – Rebekah doesn’t show an awful lot of interest in Hester, who she is or where she’s come and that began to grate on me. In addition, neither woman shows any trepidation or hesitation about what they are feeling given the purported morality of the time – it simply doesn’t come up in discussion and I found that grating given the attitude of one of the serving girls who tries to warn Hester off.
Worse than this though is how the plot is driven by contrivance at every turn. I get that novels are essentially forced constructs and there’s always going to be a degree of contrivance but this is just so obvious and so heavy handed that it really annoyed me. For example, the way Hester overhears Rebekah wanting to send her away is really badly done (as is Rebekah’s reasons for doing so). Worse than this though is a development in the final section of the book where a development literally turns on a character not looking at another character’s face. Even though Carlin is playing into gothic tropes with that point, I still found it ridiculous and melodramatic and it just made it very difficult for me to feel engaged with the book.
Ultimately, the story just didn’t work for me and I can’t say that I would rush to read Carlin’s other work on the back of it.