We may have only just reached the end of January, but I’ve already read one of my most anticipated releases of 2021! Laura Purcell was easily my Author of 2020 as I finally picked up her entire backlist, starting with Silent Companions, thanks to a combination of graduating from university, lockdown, and the wonderful Dan singing her praises on Instagram (@dantheman1504). As I loved each of them, to say I was excited for her latest release to follow so soon afterwards is an understatement especially as it was set in Bath, an area I have many happy memories in.
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?
— Publisher’s Synopsis
The relationship between two professional female characters, one a woman and one very much still a girl despite her circumstances, and the common threads of murder which bring them together is constantly intriguing throughout the narrative. They meet in a whirlwind of circumstances and their bond is complex but satisfying given their parallels. I also enjoyed Purcell’s ability to invite the reader into the practicalities of their professions whilst maintaining the hardships both Agnes and Pearl face. I adore mystery narratives which feature one seemingly unimportant aspect connecting deaths, but the incorporation of taking someone’s shade down and Pearl feeling each respective methods of death kept me turning every page. I perhaps would have liked this to remain concrete through to the end of the narrative, however, where it was employed it was done wonderfully.
Whilst reading I noticed a wonderful aspect of Laura Purcell’s writing in which she interweaves early significant revelations casually into the character’s thoughts, with the larger discussions on the said topic to follow this. While this does mean you could easily not necessarily pick up on them immediately, trust me when I say that when you catch them you’ll be reading sentences multiple times to ensure you’ve read that new information correctly and in a mystery like this one, it’s the best feeling.
There are very interesting representations of illness, difference, disability and long term illness across the cast of characters as Agnes is recovering from pneumonia, Pearl was born with albinism and Pearl’s father is living with Phossy jaw. This inclusion of the very real presence of suffering in Victorian Bath is weaved alongside the spiritualism, but neither one overpowers the other and the result is a gorgeously dark, but very historically satisfying novel perfect for those, like me, who simply can’t switch off their learning brain when reading.
I adore Purcell’s books as I adore gothic ghost stories, they will forever be both my favourite books both academically and personally, so of course, my academic brain was on the lookout both for the illnesses (I study Medical Humanities specifically) and the ghosts. However, I’ve not gotten on well with many books I’ve read discussing spiritualism before, such as Sarah Waters’ Affinity, so I was a tiny bit nervous that this would overwhelm any more traditionally spooky aspects. I was not disappointed and did love the more spiritualist appearances of ghosts. Of course, when you inject a mystery alongside ghosts I’m going to have theories throughout, but some twists in here were simultaneously far more detailed than expected and elegantly simple.
On finishing the book, I immediately wanted more from the narrative, but not in a negative way. I simply wanted to delve deeper into what everything meant, to discuss every detail that leads to certain reveals, but I was left wanting to see more of one particular character. If you know what my favourite book of all time is, and then read this book, you’ll probably be able to guess who that character is. The important distinction that made this a five star for me is that I didn’t feel anything was missing. If you’re looking for a gorgeously atmospheric, fast-paced, and delightfully mysterious read I implore you to pick this up.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell was published in hardback, ebook and audiobook by Raven Books (Bloomsbury) on the 21st of January 2021.
I purchased my copy of The Shape of Darkness with my own money. The publisher did not send me a copy, and had no part in preparing for this review.
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