Wicked deeds require the cover of darkness…
A struggling silhouette artist in Victorian Bath seeks out a renowned child spirit medium in order to speak to the dead – and to try and identify their killers – in this beguiling new tale from Laura Purcell.
Silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another…
Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them. But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…
What secrets lie hidden in the darkness?
Set in Victorian Bath, the novel alternates between the perspectives of struggling silhouette artist Agnes and child spirit medium Pearl as they unite to try and discover the identity of a sinister killer who appears to be targeting Agnes’ clients. But as they use Pearl’s powers to connect with the spirits of the victims, dark secrets from both of their pasts begin to emerge – and forces that they may not be able to control seek to take control.
Laura Purcell has brilliantly evoked the gloomy atmosphere of Victorian Bath, effortlessly transporting the reader to the dark streets that lie behind the elegant facades of the famous Crescent. From the very first page, she succeeds in creating a dark and oppressive atmosphere, taking the reader from the shabby gentility of Agnes’s house to the dank and gloomy interior of Pearl’s makeshift parlour. This oppressiveness only grows over the course of the book, as the sinister forces that Agnes and Pearl seem to have evoked loom large across the page.
As in her previous novels, Purcell has also created some complicated and captivating characters in Agnes and Pearl. Both had distinct voices and, because of their circumstances, provide a unique perspective on the world.
I really liked how Agnes provided the perspective of an older woman – a character often overlooked in Gothic fiction. Living with her elderly mother and her beloved nephew Cedric, Agnes’s life has been beset by hardships including the loss of her beloved Montague, a tragic accident, and a recent bout of pneumonia that has left her physically weak and struggling to work. She is also a woman out of time. As photography becomes the popular medium of choice, Agnes’s profession as a silhouette artist is becoming increasingly irrelevant – leaving Agnes feeling almost like a ghost from a by-gone era herself. This sense of Agnes as a woman haunted by her mysterious past is effectively combined with the atmosphere to really ratchet up the tension – and helps to create some explosive and completely unexpected twists towards the novel’s close!
Pearl is another fascinating character. Aged only 11, her narrative combines a childlike innocence with the knowledge gained from her ability to communicate with a world beyond our own. Struggling with both her own new-found abilities and with the expectations placed upon her by her mesmerist sister Myrtle and her sick father, Pearl is a deeply sympathetic character whose tragic life only gets more complicated with the arrival of Agnes.
Purcell is a master of evoking gothic tropes to craft sinister and richly described mysteries and The Shape of Darkness is no exception to this – for me, it’s probably her darkest book yet, with the story going to some disturbing places that leave the reader questioning what is real and what is imagined. This does mean that the novel is not the fastest of reads – the slow build up of atmosphere is designed to be savoured not devoured – but, if you stick with the sedate pacing, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic twists and a truly shocking, edge-of-your-seat ending.
Fans of Purcell’s work are sure to be delighted by The Shape of Darkness, which offers the perfect combination of chilling gothic vibes and evocative historical setting that made her previous novels such an enjoyable read. Whilst detractors are unlikely to be converted, for those new to Purcell’s writing, The Shape of Darkness makes the perfect jumping off point for her work with its combination of a chilling murder mystery and a haunting ghost story.
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 for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour.
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