So here I am, regaining my sanity after the recent book-culling saga. What better way of relaxing into the pleasures of my own book collection than spending some time with a kindred spirit …
he picked up a book and stroked his finger lingeringly over its leather cover. She (Violet, his second wife) watched as he opened it and brought up the splayed yellowing pages to his nostrils. He slowly inhaled. It was sensual, her husband’s experience of books, the texture, the sweet or acrid colours, the feel of a rough, uncut page.
Well, yes to all that, I would say. But Violet is a content person. She loves the processes of thought, the flight of imagination.
Is this a basic incompatibility that portends a bad end to their fairytale marriage?
I use that epithet advisedly because that’s the way it is. Violet, a friendless penniless orphan, marries her somewhat older Lord, a matter of months after he asks what she is reading. She is transported to a country mansion with an extensive library. A year later she is a mother, yet not content. Her husband goes wandering at night and what is that book, dedicated to his first wife, that he keeps locked away in his safe?
Set in the pre-WWI Edwardian era, when well-off women at home didn’t have enough to do to keep themselves grounded, Violet begins to obsess on these matters, gradually losing her grip on reality. Delusions follow which render her a risk to her child, and Archibald, as was the way back then, consigns her for treatment in the lunatic asylum.
So far, so reasonable. Violet’s illness could all be explained nowadays as post-natal depression, couldn’t it? Archibald is nothing other than a caring husband ensuring the then best available treatment for his wife. That perceived emotional emptiness is just that – a percepton, isn’t it? Thus does Violet justify her husband’s actions, but, while in the asylum, stories surface of his frequent visits and his cosy relationship with the doctors …..
Following her release, matters deteriorate when Archibald installs Clara as nurse-maid, he continues his nocturnal wanderings and former inmates of the asylum begin to disappear. That prescribed bottle of laudanum makes it impossible for Violet to distinguish between reality or paranoid delusion. A second trip to the asylum is inevitable. Which, given the pattern of the first, bodes ill for Violet and the solution of the mystery.
However, Thompson ensures there is sufficient concrete evidence – including a brief glimpse of a macabre jigsaw with characters from the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen – for the reader to understand what Violet cannot. That Lord Archibald Murray is no fairytale prince, but an Edwardian bluebeard, complete with trophy cabinet. Not the literal room full of blood-spattered corpses but a trophy made possible by Edwardian practices of bookbinding.
Thompson is excellent at subverting reader expectations and tipping the world on its head. And so that paragraph on the behaviour and habits of a fellow tactile bibliophile, quoted above, now makes me shudder. Not entirely sure I’m thanking her for that.
Mistress of slippiness and suggestion she may be, but there are places where the brutality – be it of Violet’s treatment in the asylum or the murders and subsequent processing of the corpses – is viscerally realistic. However, in this short novel of 159 pages, such passages are never gratuitous, nor extended. Recommended for non-squeamish lovers of fairytales retold.