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Melodrama

THE UNFORGETTING . . . Between the covers

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As she gazes up at her bedroom ceiling, Lily Bell daydreams of becoming an actress. She is, to be sure, beautiful enough, with her long almost-white blond hair and her flawless complexion, but for the stepdaughter of a struggling artist in the London of 1851, her dreams of becoming Ophelia, Juliet or Desdemona are just foolish fantasies. Until the day her penniless stepfather receives a visit from one of his creditors, a mysterious self-styled Professor – Erasmus Salt. Salt is actually a theatrical showman, with a macabre interest in that overwhelming Victorian obsession, communicating with the dead. He offers Alfred Bell respite from the debt in return for Lily accompanying Salt and his spinster sister Faye to become the star of a new production, in which he will convince audiences that he has raised the dead.

Unforgetting coverDespite her misgivings, Lily is intrigued by what appears to be a chance to achieve her ambition. After all, Salt’s theatrical illusion may be faintly sinister, but who knows what career doors it might unlock? Bell, despite the tears and misgivings of his wife, cannot get Lily out of the door fast enough, and soon the girl is on her way south, to the seaside town of Ramsgate, where Salt’s production is due to be presented at The New Tivoli theatre.

Salt’s production is, literally, smoke and mirrors. Lily is not to appear on stage at all, but is confined to a cubicle, where her image is projected onto the stage via a huge mirror and the swirling aura produced by the burning of quicklime. On stage, an actor plays the role of a grieving husband trying to summon up the image of his dead wife. When she ‘appears’, he tries to clasp her to his arms but her wraith vanishes, and he ends it all, courtesy of a knife and a bladder of pig’s blood concealed under his shirt.

At first, Lily does not object to her new career, strange though it might be. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Salt – in order to further foster the illusion of Lily’s miraculous reincarnation – publishes notices announcing her death, and has a headstone bearing her name erected over an (empty) grave in a nearby cemetery.

By now we, as readers, know much more about Salt than does the hapless Lily. Having experience a terrible trauma in his youth, the balance of his mind has been disturbed; he may also be a murderer, and his obsession with the dead could be leading further than simply the creation of a melodramatic theatrical illusion.

Lily is an admirable character and becomes more resilient as her fortunes take a downturn at the hands of Salt, but the most intriguing part of the story is the way that Rose Black brings Faye Salt more and more centre stage, from being a slightly forbidding Mrs Danvers-like character, to becoming a vivid and compassionate woman. In the end the book was, for me, more about Faye than it was about Lily.

Rose Black has created an elegant conjuring trick of her own in The Unforgetting. She has stuck with all the conventional trappings of a Victorian melodrama, but written something much more subtle and affecting. Yes, we have a sneering villain, his grotesque henchman, a gothic mansion witness to a terrible tragedy, a wronged woman, a dying mother, exotic travelling gypsies, a noble young man who turns the tables on the degenerate despoiler – but there is more, so much more than that. The Unforgetting is published by Orion and is out now.

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DARK ASYLUM … Between the covers

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E S Thomson delivers a tale of Gothick horror, which features a young medical apothecary trying to find who killed the senior physician at a gloomy and grotesque hospital for the mentally ill in Victorian London. Jem Flockhart is not what he seems, however. Mr Flockhart is actually a Miss, as he was born female, a surviving twin. For reasons that are not immediately clear, her father switched her with the stillborn brother at birth – a birth which was so traumatic that it killed the mother. Now an adult, helped by her lack of obvious feminine sexual characteristics, she has carved out for herself a persona as a respected medical gentleman and herbalist, a position which, given the prevailing nineteenth century attitude towards women in the medical profession, would have otherwise been unattainable.

Jem, and her companion Will Quartermain – who is unequivocally male – are summoned to view the body of Doctor Rutherford who is found with his ears cut off and stuffed in his mouth, a surgical implement jammed fatally into his brain, and his lips and eyes sewn shut with crudely executed surgical stitches. Amid the carnage, there is no shortage of suspects. The other doctors attached to the asylum are jealous of Rutherford’s eminence, but scathing about his obsession that phrenology – the study of the contours of the skull – is the only true means of understanding mental illness.

DAAs I got further into the book, I was beginning to wonder just what the point was of having Jem Flockhart cross-dressing, as it didn’t seem to have any real bearing on events. Just at the point when I was about to dismiss the idea as a conceit, Thomson delivered a beautifully written scene which made sense of Flockhart’s subterfuge, and added extra poignancy to the relationship between Jem and Will.

We learn that Jem has a disfiguring strawberry birthmark on her face, and Thomson writes with conviction on this issue, as her postscript to the story tells of how she suffered a temporary disfigurement herself, and how she came to be acutely aware of how people looked at her. I can say that this was a gripping read which drew me in to the extent that I finished the book in just a few sessions. The smells, sensations, sounds and social sensitivities of 1850s London are dramatically recreated, and provide much of the novel’s punch. Thomson has an eye for visceral horror and disease that David Cronenberg would approve of, and every time Jem Flockhart takes us into the room of one of the poorer denizens of London, we are inclined to hold our noses and be very careful where we put our feet.

Subtle, the book is not, but it is a dazzling, whirling, swirling riotous melodrama, which leaves little to the imagination. We have, in no particular order, people buried alive, heads being boiled in cauldrons, the shrieking, gibbering and cackling of the insane, a lunatic who keeps cockroaches as pets, the stench and degradation of prison transport ships, club-footed mad-women and the ghastly nineteenth century version of Britain’s Got Talent – the public execution.

Thomson also brings us some larger-than-life characters, none larger than the monstrous Dr Mothersole:

“His face was as smooth as a pebble, his mouth a crimson rosebud between porcelain cheeks. His head had not a single hair upon it and his lashes and brows were entirely absent, giving him a curious appearance, doll-like, and yet half complete….”

Also, very much to her credit, Thomson occasionally has her tongue firmly in her cheek. Why else would the dreadful and bestial Bedlam where most of the action takes place be called Angel Meadow, and what better name for a brothel keeper than Mrs Roseplucker? And what else are we to make of two of the charities patronised by Dr Mothersole, The Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor, and The Limbless Costermongers Benevolent Fund ? I loved every page of this book. It is hugely entertaining and, unless something extraordinary happens, will be in the running for one of my books of the year. It is out now, and published by Constable.

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