Hester Why has answered an advertisement for a nurse and maid, moving from London to Cornwall, the other end of the country. A place is that, in her own words, “teetering on the edge of the map”. She is crushed into a 4- person mail coach with five others. And yet she knows she is one of the lucky ones when the coach spins to a spine-jerking halt and one of the passengers riding on the roof falls from the carriage. Hester jumps from the carriage to help the unfortunate fellow realising that in doing so she is drawing attention to herself. Hester is running from something.
At the end of this journey she is picked up by an old man and a pony-trap and taken up the cliff to Morvoren House. Just like passages from “The Silent Companions”, Purcell turns this ascent into a terrifying, harrowing experience. The fragile little pony-trap teetering on the edge of the track which drops off into the churning sea beneath.
“A sheer drop yawns to my left, perhaps twenty feet, terminating in a flash of sand and black water. Lost in dreams, I had not observed that our rickety pony-trap was scaling a cliff.
My stomach churns along with the waters below. One of the few consolations I had cherished before this night was that I should behold the ocean at last. I had imagined it blue, serene. What seethes beneath me is dark, frighteningly powerful; a cauldron of demons”.
She is to be employed as the nurse and maid of the 68-year-old Miss Pinecroft.
The atmosphere of Hester’s first meeting with Miss Pinecroft fills the reader with dread and foreboding. The room in which she resides is cold and dank. One wall is almost completely covered with china objects. Miss Pinecroft has suffered a stroke and is partially paralysed barely acknowledging Hester’s presence.
The second part of the novel will reveal what Hester is running from and that Hester is not even her real name. This part of the novel gives the reader some insight into Hester’s character and reveals that she is an alcoholic. This affliction plays a wonderful role in the narrative placing doubt in the reader’s mind about everything Hester encounters later in the novel. I must say that I loved the character of Hester. A broken young woman, addicted to gin, stealing the laudanum from the supplies. Hester is flawed and far from your perfect cardboard heroine.
The third part of the novel takes us forty years into the past where Miss Pinecroft is a young woman working together with her father on an experimental treatment for consumption. Dr Pinecroft lost his entire family, apart from Miss Pinecroft, to consumption, and his grief has left him with a burning obsession to find a cure for this pernicious disease. A burning desire that perhaps clouds his medical mind and reasoning. He is certain that the answer to curing consumption lies in the sea air. To aid him with his work he has been assigned a group of convicts who have contracted consumption and are all trapped within its grasp, bereft of a cure that is yet to be found. These convicts are confined to the caves that adorn the cliffside beneath Morvoren House. And it is within these caves that the treatment takes place.
Finally, we return to the present for a thrilling conclusion.
Purcell has done a wonderful job with this novel. A wonderful job in obscuring the actual truth as to what is happening. Are, as it increasingly seems with the novel’s progression, the evil fairies real? Or is everything imagined by Hester’s clouded laudanum laced mind. Ambiguity reins supreme in this novel.
As with “The Silent Companions”, Purcell again creates a claustrophobic, eerie, dark, gothic atmosphere around Morvoren House. And again, just like the companions, the fairies feel like a malignant presence, always watching. At times I almost felt I was trapped alongside Hester in the cold, dank china room. With this book Purcell has proven that she is, or is well on her way to becoming, a master of this genre.
I did enjoy “The Silent Companions” more but this is still a superb, haunting, read. 4 Stars.
Laura Purcell is a former bookseller and lives in Colchester with her husband and pet guinea pigs.
Her first novel for Raven Books THE SILENT COMPANIONS won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read Award 2018 and featured in both the Zoe Ball and Radio 2 Book Clubs. Other Gothic novels include THE CORSET (THE POISON THREAD in USA), BONE CHINA and THE SHAPE OF DARKNESS (2020)
Laura’s historical fiction about the Hanoverian monarchs, QUEEN OF BEDLAM and MISTRESS OF THE COURT, was published by Myrmidon.
I have left a link to a podcast on Tea and Tattle with an interview of Purcell here - https://www.teaandtattlepodcast.com/home/121