Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken.
But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the same disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home.
While he devotes himself to his controversial medical trials, Louise finds herself increasingly discomfited by the strange tales her new maid tells of the fairies that hunt the land, searching for those they can steal away to their realm.
Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last.
I deliberately waited until the nights started to draw in before picking up Laura Purcell’s latest novel Bone China. Having read and loved her brilliantly spooky debut The Silent Companions, I knew Purcell excels at providing her readers with a healthy slice of the Gothic, some sinister happenings, and atmosphere that you can cut through with a knife. And in this respect, Bone China absolutely did not disappoint.
Offering shades of Daphne Du Maurier, Bone China centres on the occupants of the forlorn Morvoren House. Isolated and gloomy, Morvoren sits high on the Cornish cliffs, watching over the caves that lie beneath it. When Hester Why arrives at Morvoren to nurse the elderly Louise Pinecroft, she is taken aback by her new mistress’s isolation – and by the superstitious household staff with their tales of fairies and their numerous rituals. Morvoren House is, it seems, a house of secrets. And Hester herself if not everything she appears to be…
From the dark and oppressive shadows of Morvoren House, with its dank caves and chill winds, to the refined confines of an elegant London townhouse, every one of Purcell’s settings drips atmosphere. I was fascinated by the world that these characters inhabited, filled with hidden codes of conduct and constantly treading a balance between science and superstitions.
Sadly I was less captivated with the lives of the characters themselves. I raced through the first portion of the book, which sees the enigmatic Hester arrive at Morvoren House. From the off, it is clear that Hester has suffered a fall from grace. Increasingly reliant on the contents of her hip-flask just to make it through the day, she is a far cry from the competent and reliant ladies maid she was in London.
Yet just as I was drawn into Hester’s story – and the tragic reasons behind her sudden alteration in character and circumstances – the narrative moves back forty years and switches to the viewpoint of Louise Pinecroft, Hester’s new mistress. Whilst Louise’s story is a tragic and compelling one in and of itself, the sudden shift left me feeling disconnected from Hester.
And, whilst the strands of the two narratives do come together as the novel progresses, I never felt like I quite got the grasp of either of them. There was, if I’m honest, a little too much going on: Hester’s terrible secret, Louise’s haunted past, the sinister nursemaid Creeda with her spells and rituals, and the mysterious Rosewyn who seems to be being kept at Morvoren against her will. Add in a secondary plot involving a theoretical treatment for consumption (now better known as TB), and the third strand about fairy superstitions, and it was sometimes hard to keep all the dots joined together in my head.
Which is such a shame because, when Bone China works, it really works. I was genuinely fascinated by Hester’s story and backstory. And Louise’s tale, especially all the information about TB and the early attempts at finding a cure, was clearly very well researched and made for a compelling read. Either of these would have made, I felt, a brilliant novel in their own right. But I wasn’t sure that the two stories fit together particularly well, or that the third strand about fairies added anything to either of them.
All of this makes it sound like I really didn’t enjoy Bone China, which certainly isn’t the case. I don’t review books I don’t finish and I don’t finish books that I don’t enjoy – so Bone China did compel me enough to finish it. It’s a solidly good book. Good but, for me, not brilliant.
As I said at the beginning of this review, the atmosphere is spot on and the story has a compulsion that did leave me wanting to know how everything fitted together. I suppose I just felt that, ultimately, the novel was a little disjointed and that the ending, when it came, raised more questions than I felt it answered.
My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing me with an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.