Book Review: Bone China by Laura Purcell

“What’s clear from this book and its two predecessors is that Laura Purcell is a master of her craft. She is steadily building a body of original work, within a specific subgenre, yet with each release distinctive and original from the last.”

 

Bone China by Laura Purcell - coverIn recent years, there seems to have been a resurgence in popularity of books coming under the ‘Gothic’ label. It’s a genre, or subgenre, with a long, rich history going back to the 1700s. The last few years, though, has seen a plethora of books harking back to classic themes and settings of the Victorian era (and beyond). One such writer is Laura Purcell who had already published a number of historical novels before releasing her first Gothic supernatural book, The Silent Companions, through Raven Books (Bloomsbury) in 2017. This was a chilling tale of madness, a creepy old mansion, and secrets that slowly piled on the terror and claustrophobia in a remote Victorian setting. She followed this up with The Corset (Raven Books 2018), a dual narrative that was a compelling character study of two flawed but believable women. Full of rich detail about the often harsh lives of those in Victorian times, The Corset threaded in its supernatural elements subtly and ambiguously. Both books exemplify an attention to detail and an obvious line in thorough historical research. They are also notable for their rich characterisation. With her third supernatural Gothic novel, Laura relocates to the remote Cornwall coast and a lonely house full of strange characters and whispers of the fairy folk.


Bone China
opens with its primary character, Hester Why, as she journeys by carriage to her new employment at Morvoren House in Cornwall. Her first-person narrative immediately shows her to be, if not fully unreliable, then certainly troubled. She sneaks sips of alcohol—gin—from a flask he hides and regrets giving medical aid to a man injured when the carriage has an accident. In this instance, she alludes to showing her nursing abilities in public as being counterproductive to her remaining unnoticed. But unnoticed from who, we do not yet know. As this early part of the novel progresses, Hester makes oblique reference to a previous employment, one that we surmise did not end happily. These hints thread through Hester’s arrival at her new house, her meeting the other servants and occupants, and the tour of Morvoren House. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say these suggestive elements, intriguing and tantalising—in which we are invited to speculate on what might have happened—are buried in the narrative. Much like the bones that are buried in the china that becomes a feature of the story.

Soon enough, Hester meets Miss Louise Pinecroft, the elderly owner of Morvoren House Hester is there to be nursemaid to. The woman barely speaks and spends much of her time sitting in a cold room full of china crockery decorated in shades and patterns of white and blue. This would be strange enough itself (as is the instruction that this frail lady must locked in her bedroom at night), but then there are the whispers and rumours—and sometimes outright discussion—of fairies, of attempts to steal people away to their realm. These tales seem to originate most strongly from an elderly servant, Creeda. All this in itself would be enough for a complete novel to deal with, and yet this happens in just the first few dozen pages. It’s a testament to Laura’s skills that it never becomes overwhelming; each character is introduced naturally, and given space to breathe, each element of the story slotted in with ease. The prose is beautifully spare, poetic when it needs to be, and perfectly attuned to the period (early 1800s).

After this opening, we jump back to Hester’s service at Hanover House. Here, she was known as Esther Stevens, in service to Lady Rose, a young bride newly married. This section delves into the character of Hester/Esther, detailing the devotion to her charge; a devotion that assumed a level of friendship beyond employee/employer. This platonic intimacy led Hester to overstep her boundaries, and after a tragic miscarriage, Lady Rose’s husband employed a maid with more ‘modern’ medical knowledge. Obsessing and worrying, Hester allowed her anxieties to dictate her actions, leading to further tragedy and the reason she fled the house, forced to forge references.

Laura moves back to the ‘present’ at Morvoren House, subtly piling on the eerie elements, whilst also tightening various personal clashes and tensions between Hester and other characters. Much of this comes from Hester’s disdain for what sees as childish superstition, though even she can’t shake the sense something strange is going on. Again, Hester’s obsessive—though apparently well-intentioned—nature comes to the fore as she tries to find out what exactly is going on at Morvoren House. In addition to that mentioned already is Miss Pinecroft’s ward, Rosewyn. Although clearly a grown woman in at least her forties, Rosewyn acts and is treated like a child. She carries a makeshift doll around with her and looks constantly in fear, heavily influenced by the glowering Creeda. It adds another layer of strangeness and secrets to a book already infused with them. And some of the answers—or suggestions of answers—lie in the past, when Miss Pinecroft was a young woman barely twenty, and helping her father try and treat prisoners suffering consumption. Again, the spectre of the fairy folk rears its head, insinuating and influencing the actions of the characters even without them knowing. But as before, it’s ambiguous and subtle, never entirely confirmed real or imagined even to its tragic/redemptive end. The supernatural exists here on a kind of borderland, complementing and underscoring the very human lives, the tragedies, the secrets. Rather than overwhelming, it quietly adds atmosphere, tone, and creeping unease.

What is apparent with this book—and the previous two—is that Laura Purcell is a writer with a firm grasp on intent and execution. She writes clearly and concisely, yet also with flair. Her novels are evocative and immersive, pulling the reader deep into their worlds effortlessly. That immersion leads, especially in the case of Bone China, to its one ‘criticism’; that it could be much longer. So invested does the reader become in the plight of the characters, inevitably they want more. There is the sense that Bone China could easily be another two or three hundred pages, exploring even more of the people, the backdrops, the history, and the folk horror. Maybe that’s simply a reflection of how this reviewer felt. There’s no doubt the novel is fantastic as it is; perhaps the sign of a truly great story is the hold it takes with the reader, the longing for more it leaves.

Whilst Bone China might be a shade underscored for many die-hard horror readers, it’s more than rewarding for those who appreciate quieter tales. Think The Innocents (the film version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Creeping, subtle dread that gets under the skin. And like the best of these stories, it uses the supernatural, the otherworldly, as mirror, as a foil for the human drama. What’s clear from this book and its two predecessors is that Laura Purcell is a master of her craft. She is steadily building a body of original work, within a specific subgenre, yet with each release distinctive and original from the last. We can only anticipate what her next release will be and hope the wait isn’t too long.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Raven Books
Hardback: 448 (pps)
Release Date: 19 September 2019

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