Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?
Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.
When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.
Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?
Having read, reviewed and enjoyed all three of Laura Purcell’s other novels (The Silent Companions, Bone China, and The Shape of Darkness) I can only assume that I’ve been holding off on The Corset for fear of having no more of her deliciously dark Gothic goodness to read!
The Corset, Purcell’s second novel, alternates between the narratives of Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy philanthropist with a fascination in phrenology; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage seamstress sentenced to death for the brutal and calculated murder of her employer. Fixated on testing her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes, Dorothea at first is dismissive of Ruth’s own belief that her sewing needles hold a deadly power beyond her control. But as Ruth’s story unfolds – and it becomes apparent that this young woman may have more than one death on her hands – Dorothea begins to suspect that there may be more to Ruth’s plight than meets the eye.
Laura Purcell is so brilliant at capturing atmosphere in her work. From the refined confines of Dorothea’s family home to the sparsity of Ruth’s prison cell, the sense of both time and place drips from the page. Purcell’s writing is rich in description without ever becoming overblown, drawing the reader into the world of the characters.
And what a grim and dark world that is! Although Dorothea spends her days in a world of privilege and relative independence, her experience is sharply contrasted by that of Ruth. Coming from a background of genteel poverty, Ruth has known little but hardship in her short life. A natural seamstress, she is forced into labouring as an apprentice for the tyrannical dressmaker Mrs Metcalfe after a series of family tragedies. A seeming escape from penury, Ruth’s time at Mrs Metcalfe’s soon turns into a horrifying ordeal: one that may require use of her strange and disturbing powers to escape from.
To say any more about the plot of The Corset would be to spoil some of the shocking twists and thrilling turns of the narrative. Content warnings, however, for forced labour, forced confinement, imprisonment, child abuse, and murder.
I have to say that I was more drawn towards Ruth narrative – brutal though it is in places – and, at times, felt that some aspects of Dorothea’s story were a distraction rather than an addition to the central narrative thread. Dorothea’s interest in phrenology, for example, wasn’t explored as much as I had expected – although it did make a brilliant comeback towards the end! I also felt that the ending, although satisfyingly surprising, was a little rushed in terms of the way that it connected the two narratives together. In particular, Dorothea’s narrative strand took a sudden and somewhat unexpected turn that I felt could have been introduced and set up earlier on.
Ruth’s ‘power’ – an ability to transmit her feelings and intentions through her stitches – incorporates magical realist elements into the novel and I enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s honest and fearful belief in this supernatural ability and Dorothea’s rational and scientific scepticism. I also found the supporting cast to be vividly drawn: Mrs Metcalf, in particular, is a a truly disturbing creation and it was easy to empathise with Ruth’s hatred of her. I also loved the way in which Laura Purcell uses narrative perspective to manipulate the reader into seeing characters through a particular lens, only for us to see them differently when viewed at a different angle. In a tale in which belief is central, it was interesting to have my beliefs and perceptions of several characters inverted at times!
Although not my favourite of her novels (I think The Silent Companions is still my number one), The Corset is another accomplished and page-turning gothic tale from Laura Purcell. Combining elegant and rich prose with a compelling narrative, it offers readers a creepily satisfying tale of murder, revenge, and the supernatural that enthrals right through to the very last page!
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!