A copy of this title was provided by netgalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Content warnings: Terminal sickness, murder, accidental deaths, blood, iffy portrayals of mental illness, mentions of animal cruelty, mentions of surgical procedures.
My Rating: 4 Books out of 5
- Brilliantly atmospheric
- It’s set in Bath which is a great place
- I kept staring into space thinking oh NO
- Spiritualism is just fascinating and the seances were just fantastic
- Morpheus the pug.
“Dirt bleeds into the river, into the sky. The soul of Bath has left, and its body is decaying.”
Ooh boy this book, there is a lot going on in this book. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, The Shape of Darkness follows Agnes, a silhouette artist whose trade is dying off in the wake of the photograph, and Pearl, an eleven year old spirit medium desperate for one of the spirits she contacts to be that of her dead mother. Set in Victorian Bath, a city I’m somewhat familiar with (my best friend attended university there so I mainly know where Wetherspoon’s and an amazing burrito place were about five years ago, my knowledge isn’t greatly applicable to the Victorian era) this novel has a gloomy, dirty atmosphere to it – this is the Bath of the Victorian poor, the penniless living amongst the enormous and lavish houses the city is known for. Bodies are fished from the river, found in darkened alleyways, and all of them seem linked to Agnes and her failing business.
The narration of this audiobook was worth a star all of its own on the rating, Sophie Aldred did a brilliant job and her way of telling the story really helped me enjoy it and, I feel, get the most out of it. She did a fantastic job with all the characters, and was able to maintain the tension throughout. Her narration certainly did a service to Agnes, who I may otherwise have had trouble with purely on account of the number of times she swoons.
To clarify, she’s a woman in a corset who has suffered a respiratory condition but still.
There were quite a few twists and turns in this book, a few of which I did see coming and a few of which caught me entirely by surprise. I loved the ambiguity around the supernatural elements, that sensation of wanting to believe – because it makes a very interesting story if even the dead are having their say – and also wanting to stick to the rules of logic. After all, not all of the dead were nice people – Agnes’s sister Constance, for example, seems like an abhorrent woman who would crawl up from the pits of hell just to be awful a few moments more. They can’t all be Casper, it seems.
There were a few things that kept it from the coveted 5/5 rating for me. There were a couple of coincidental occurrences that felt a bit too coincidental – people all being in the same place at the same time, related, etc – but the story was as such that I was willing, to an extent, to suspend my disbelief and just enjoy the ride. The real issue for me was a certain issue to do with mental illness. Now, I maintain what attempts to be a largely spoiler free blog, so I won’t go into details, but there is some ambiguity between ghosts being at fault for certain events or a ‘badness in the blood’ and as someone who has experienced mental health issues (to a much lesser degree than is used here) in an age where they are better understood than they were in the great age of smelling salts and madhouses, I just wasn’t sure about the way it was dealt with or portrayed insofar as accuracy is concerned. Now for me, the inclusion of this wasn’t distressing, I was still able to enjoy the book and honestly it was so good overall, but I understand if those better acquainted with these issues find fault in this story and those like it.
Overall this book was thoroughly enjoyable for me, I finished the audiobook in two days and have already recommended it to a friend. I found the discussions around Agnes’s trade and that of the spiritualists to be so interesting, and felt that it was just a well-paced and wonderfully crafted read all in all. I do highly recommend the audiobook, Sophie Aldred really did a stellar job. I’d definitely be interested in reading more of Laura Purcell’s work and I’m so grateful to netgalley and the publisher for allowing me the opportunity to read this one!