Published: 19th September 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Miscarriage, suicide, drug and alcohol dependency
Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken. But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the same disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home.
While he devotes himself to his controversial medical trials, Louise finds herself increasingly discomfited by the strange tales her new maid tells of the fairies that hunt the land, searching for those they can steal away to their realm.
Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last.
This book is the product of a collection of many fascinating ideas that arise from a delightfully spooky concept, and when pieced together the results are fairly mixed. With a spine-chilling atmosphere and dual timelines that simmer with underlying menace, it is truly riveting at times but is occasionally let down by a plot which fails to truly deliver on its abundant potential.
It is a story that dives deep into the realm of superstition and as a result the threat is so intangible that the reader is left in the same position as a number of the characters, questioning its existence right until the very end. This and the powerful perspectives of the two protagonists are the things that really add to the intrigue and make it so readable, even when it is undeniably lacking in certain areas.
After a disastrous end to her previous posting in London that has led to an appeal for her arrest in a national newspaper, Esther Stevens travels to Cornwall to become a maid at Morvoren House, under the alias Hester Why. Her new mistress is the aged Louise Pinecroft, who spends most of her time sitting in an armchair eyeing a set of bone china, permanently on edge.
Fuelled by a growing dependence on laudanum and gin, Esther struggles in her constant attempts to persuade Miss Pinecroft to move away from the china and take shelter from the cold breeze that rushes through the open windows. She also grows unsettled by the presence of Rosewyn, a woman who behaves with all the mannerisms of a young girl, and her mysterious guardian Creeda.
Four decades earlier, Louise Pinecroft was assisting her father Ernest, a doctor conducting a study involving a group of convicts in a determined bid to find a cure for consumption. They have been joined recently by Creeda, the new maid who tells of malevolent fairies living in the nearby caves. When a tragic series of events eventually takes place, a broken Louise is forced to no longer dismiss those beliefs as pure fancy.
The concept really drives the plot and the many mysteries it throws up, with the question of the fairies’ existence gradually taking centre stage after the introduction of the earlier timeline at about a third of the way in. That is the only time where the pace really suffers, as otherwise the story moves more swiftly than you might expect.
There are rather a lot of characters to get to know and at times the whole thing does seem a little bit disjointed, which is possibly due to the author trying to fit too much in. On the plus side all of those characters are well developed and super interesting, while the unsettling narrative around the china and the sequence of events during Dr Pinecroft’s study are both highly arresting.
The later timeline is narrated by Esther in the first person, and she is a complex person who has a very powerful voice; quite assertive yet with an obvious hint of vulnerability. She is deeply affected by what happened with her previous mistress and her reliance on gin and laudanum is an ongoing theme in the book. In general she comes across as someone who wants to be liked, and would do anything for a shot at redemption.
One of the most significant parts of the story was when Esther recounts what happened in London and why she is on the run from the authorities. This whole section goes a long way towards getting to truly know her as a character, shaping many of her future actions and exposing her flaws. Some of it is also quite affecting, particularly what happens to Lady Rose.
When we go back forty years everything is told in the third person, focusing on the perspectives of Louise and her father. They have such a warm relationship, which makes it all the more sad when things take a horrifying turn. The transformation in the once bright and proactive Louise between the two timelines is stark, whereas Ernest is likeable for his idealism until he begins to question his sanity.
Of all the other characters, Creeda is certainly the most memorable. Everything about her gives you uncomfortable vibes, with her crafty demeanour and bizarre rituals designed to ward off the fairies, but you are left to wonder if what she says is true. Merryn was very sweet and innocent and the convicts in the earlier timeline were impressively fleshed out, although Rosewyn was not developed enough for someone with such an important role in the story.
The setting of Morvoren House and the surrounding country is eeriness personified, providing atmosphere everywhere you look. It feels distinctly Gothic and you can practically sense the blasts of cold wind and the pitch-black night sky. Meanwhile, every mention of the caves brings a kind of foreboding, made more acute by Creeda’s cryptic warnings.
From start to finish, the writing is very polished and quite concise with good execution of the dual narratives, though I definitely preferred Esther’s perspective, which captures her state of mind superbly. One slight disappointment was the ending, which felt somewhat hurried and abrupt, lacking depth and arguably not doing justice to some of the characters.
Overall, there is so much to immerse yourself in here with the haunting setting and the well written characters, not to mention the deadly combination of fairies and ornamental china. Despite that, it does not all come together as one coherent story and that is evidenced by a confused ending which might leave you feeling a bit short-changed. A good book, but it could have been even better.
I really enjoyed this for the most part and appreciated that the threat held by the china and the fairies was so implicit, just soaking in the atmosphere of it all. However, there was something missing and the ending was a disappointment, so that affected my rating a little.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5