This is a book of magic, of women’s strength, of the power of love. Set in the murky world of the Victorian obsession with death, this novel deals with the truth of memories and obsession as two women must strive to survive and cope with loss. Lily Bell becomes a stage ghost to be summoned at will, a nightmare or a fantasy for all those who see her. When the dangerously obsessed Erasmus Salt buys her from her stepfather, he is set on a path which will endanger all. As Lily, her chaperone Faye and others must become involved in the world of stage magic, illusion and deceit, more than one person must travel the country in search of redemption.
This is an intense novel written in brief but effective chapters as Black sets out the incidentals of daily life for women and children in London and Ramsgate. As she describes the rituals associated with death in a society which faced many challenges, she gives an idea of the impact of loss. Her achievement of conveying what it meant to be a woman in the period is stunning, and a reflection of her obvious research which is at no point too overwhelming. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent historical novel.
Lily Bell, only daughter of Ruth Bell, is central to her mother’s life. When her stepfather Alfred arranges for Lily to go with Salt to begin life in the theatre, she does not realise in that fulfilling her ambition to be an actress she will not actually step onto the stage. Salt has an ambition associated with calling back the dead which exceeds stage trickery, and Lily fulfils the requirements for his ghost. As she discovers that she has officially died, she begins to understand that she must inhabit the shadows of her own life, with greater tests to come.
Her companion in adversity is described frequently as “the spinster”, Salt’s sister Faye. From the first it is evident that she must live with traumatic memories, while obeying her brother’s imperious demands to effectively hide the young woman who cannot truly live. Her notebooks both conceal and reveal much, as the two women must inhabit a series of rooms and the very edge of life. When an overwhelming development occurs, both women must deal with the consequences for themselves in the light of their past.
This powerful book has much to say about the freedom of men and women in the reality of poverty and the desperate need for an insight into the spirit world. Moving and reflecting disturbing emotions, the characters become more than an illusion in their decisions, ambitions and needs. It balances brilliantly the blend of detailed setting with a plot that twists and turns. It proceeds at a fast pace, but succeeds in tying up all the loose ends. The dialogue is never tiresomely lengthy, and always reveals the true nature of the characters. A very vivid and visual novel, the various illusions and magic is always interesting. I found this book drew me in without apparent effort, and I was determined to read on at all points to discover the twists and turns of the plot. For memories, for forgetting, and for an insight into love of various kinds, this is a splendid and brilliantly paced novel.