The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell – a Victorian novel of darkness, memory and shadows

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

A woman cuts silhouettes, almost uncontrollably, hoping to make a living. A girl glows and seems possessed at small seances. The streets of Bath appear to be a dark and dangerous place to be in a Victorian novel of mystery, deception, darkness and shadows. Laura Purcell’s latest book is full of unexplained events, twists and turns, as Agnes Darken tries to make enough money to care for her nephew Cedric and her mother in an old house. She has one friend, a local doctor Simon Carfax, who seems very concerned with her health. Pearl is eleven and being organised by her older sister Myrtle who has great faith in exploiting the power of the spirit world. This is a fiercely atmospheric novel of darkness and murder, as unexplained discoveries and events threaten to overwhelm Agnes, and the narrative snakes through the streets of a Bath which is shabby and desperate. I found this a compelling read which has enormous depth and a complex plot, even though it mainly takes place in domestic settings. The feeling of fear and dread permeates every line of this book, and as Agnes feels compelled to investigate what is really going on she is visited by memories. This is a strong and impressive novel which I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

The novel begins with Agnes making a “Cut” or a portrait of a naval officer she sees by chance. It evokes memories for Agnes, but the weather forces her to turn for home, past such significant buildings as the Abbey. She arrives home to discover two men waiting for her, and she dreads the others in the house being alarmed. They want to ask her about the murder of a Mr Boyle, who was Agnes’ only customer for some time, and immediately it evokes memories and panics for her. A few streets away Pearl is discovering that the Gift of Mediumship is potentially lucrative, though uncomfortable and painful. Her strong minded sister explains that they need to hold a seance in order to become known, to exploit her gift. After dealing with her nephew and the horrid sight of a magpie devouring a baby bird, she makes her way to the murder victim’s house only to get a strange reaction. When she makes a chilling discovery she begins to think that she is a link between attacks, and becomes desperate to find out what is going on. Meanwhile, Pearl becomes more frightened and distressed by what she is being asked to do, and begins to fall into further despair.  Simon is anxious to help Agnes, but as she becomes more determined to find out what is going on she has to wrestle with memories and more.

This book reveals the benefits of huge amounts of research, yet it is never slowed down by too much information at the expense of the story. The art of cutting portraits of people is far more complex than I realised, involving basic machinery on occasion. Although stories concerning female mediums seem to be popular at the moment, this book is far more visceral and physical than others. The shadows and the darkness add to the atmosphere of this terrific book, which I found offered a lot of thought – provoking narrative and implications. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well written historical novel with real depth.