Laura Purcell has always been an author I’ve wanted to try as her titles have consistently popped out to me from bookshop shelves, BookTube videos and Instagram images alike. She’s always been recommended to me as soon as anyone finds out my reading taste for Gothic, medically/anatomically macabre, suspense and intriguing twists. Her books are also published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury imprint) who specialise in these favourite genres and themes of mine and their authors also include Stuart Turton and his debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
However, between university reading and fully immersing myself in the latest releases I only, finally, picked up her first, and arguably most well-known novel, The Silent Companions earlier this year. As this overdue discovery coincided with the paperback release of her latest novel, Bone China, and her next release, The Shape of Darkness, is due in January 2021 I made her my ‘author of 2020’ and read all three novels ahead of this release. I wanted to see if I could call Laura Purcell a favourite author. Also, the design of all of Purcell’s books is exquisite, but especially Bone China and The Silent Companions so if you’re a geek for book design please check them out.
Well, a few months later I’ve now finished The Corset, which was the last on my list. So today you’re getting three mini-reviews in one! If you’re wondering if Laura Purcell’s books are for you, especially if you’re a lover of the Gothic and creepy, and you’re curious about her previous books then this is the place for you.
The Silent Companions (2017)
Ah, the one that started it all. I’ve been recommended this book countless times due to the cover quote comparing it to my three all-time favourites, The Woman in Black, Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw. I loved it. Out of the three, this is the one I want to re-read first and will continue to do so, I hope, at least once a year. The haunted house setting, always a favourite of mine, is truly intriguing and Purcell places these creepy wooden figures which adorn the house front and centre. As I find more examples of it, but especially across Purcell’s work, I find I’m truly enjoying this more silent form of haunting and mystery which echoes The Turn of the Screw specifically.
The Gothic theming surrounding wood really captivated me and I truly haven’t stopped thinking about it. I personally believe it’s quite a unique twist on Gothic haunting devices and themes, especially within the country house setting. Purcell excels in balancing the silence of her mysterious elements, often standard objects or hobbies given a sinister twist, with dark and even gruesome deaths which stand out in the reading experience. I still remember one of the deaths in The Silent Companions and, like her use of wood, I don’t think I’m quite every going to forget it. Purcell always presents readers with young women who are delightful if also delightfully unlikable due to their preconceptions, as is the case here, obsessions or secrets. I love a good slightly unlikable character you can still root for, especially in Purcell’s work where the circumstances will overwhelm the more negative characteristics before their motivations completely inform each narrative’s ending.
On a side note, I love that Purcell has changed her Twitter name and profile picture for Spooky Season to Hetta referencing this book. It’s such a clever touch.
The Corset (2018)
This is easily Purcell’s darkest novel in terms of writing style, graphic depictions of hardship and violent events and curious connections between the supernatural and medically explainable. That said, this book showed me just how high my disturbance and creep tolerance is when it comes to reading Gothic, horror and suspense. There are books which have creeped me out more, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and if you’re looking for the darker side this season, I recommend jumping in here and never looking back.
The characterisation of this narrative is the highlight, alongside those expertly written graphic creepy scenes, as Ruth swerves the trappings of being the obvious secondary narrative mouthpiece and both sides become equals in my investment and character development. As a Gothic lover, I could see some characters which fell in line with typical secondary character styles, but I’m personally never one to complain if an author hasn’t developed absolutely everyone who appears on the page to within an inch of their life. Whereas Ruth is initially the character developing rapidly as you read, both Ruth and Doretha become exquisitely complex upon a rereading, or with general knowledge of the ending. Doretha may fluctuate in likability, but she’s a curious character, with an almost lovable obsession with Phrenology, and the cover blurb becomes so much more interesting following the ending.
Speaking of this ending, it blew me away. This ending gave me just the right balance between a clever twist I was able to deduce a few pages beforehand, but also smack the reader with an unexpected one, or rather one you hoped was coming but couldn’t see quite how in the very final pages and those are the twists I live for. I have seen that this ending can be quite divisive. It’s typical of Gothic narratives, and some modern mystery/thrillers, that readers will often fall on one side of wanting to know exactly what happened, what the supernatural element is exactly, who did it and how, or being happy with ambiguity. I normally land with the former in preferring to have the gritty details, but I loved this ending as Purcell expertly delivered both simultaneously. I think it is possible to be distracted by the ambiguous elements, which are certainly present and viable, and therefore not realise that, if you prefer to, you can easily draw out a cut and dry explanation of the said ambiguity of the ending. For Purcell to achieve this, whilst also delivering an ending worthy of the debate, really propelled this book into the five-star range for me.
The Corset will also appeal to fans of Sarah Waters’ Affinity. Both novels revolve around two women of different classes, a lady visitor and convicted criminal, and their connection grows specifically through extensive visits to the prison. Affinity features an imprisoned spiritualist; however, I think if you liked one you should check out the other.
Bone China (2019)
I was so excited to read this as, in doing what she does best, Purcell draws out the china and gives it a sinister Gothic edge which I adore. It’s a fascinating concept which certainly featured heavily throughout. Originally, I was a little disappointed that it seemed to fall away from the ending, however, after a tad of re-reading I noticed so many more details tying back into this original concept. The highlight of this particular entry to Purcell’s catalogue of work is the writing, imagery and intuitive character connections which keep multiple narrative threads in line perfectly. All I’m going to say is that the counting handle freaked me out.
Whereas The Silent Companions is the one I’m itching to reread for the love of the narrative and concepts, Bone China is the novel I’m most curious to revisit and examine more closely. I’ve thought over the characters specifically since finishing this and I think they have stood out far more than I expected them to, similarly to The Corset. I was very happy to see medicine, especially historically informed research medicine, featured very heavily throughout due to the focus on consumption. This aspect was very well done as it informed narratives whilst also grounding some of the more fantastical elements in the mortality of the disease.
Synopsis Preview: The Shape of Darkness (2021)
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?
— Retailer Synopsis, Waterstones
Overall, I think these reviews certainly speak for themselves confirming Laura Purcell as a new favourite author. I’ve adored Laura Purcell’s consistency in producing very high quality creepy, Gothic narratives each of which holds a central key concept unique to the previous ones. I’m hoping her writing continues to impress, captivate and ensnare me whilst also, hopefully soon, producing those mind-blowing twists and concepts. I cannot wait to try out The Shape of Darkness and see what’s hidden inside!
Have you read any of Laura Purcell’s books? Are you excited by the synopsis for her upcoming release?
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