2 out of 5 stars
This is a brooding gothic melodrama that is set in that most Victorian of places, the asylum. Nathaniel Kerner is appointed by one run by Dr Algernon Chettle called Crakethorn. It is located between North and West Ridings in Yorkshire and offered clean air, water gardens and healing springs. Chettle is a proponent of the science of phrenology, the study of skulls to try to elicit information about the mind and brain contained within the skull.
He is allocated the newest patient there, Victoria Harleston, who has been sent by her husband from another institute to be cured of her madness. She is a striking young woman, who at first glance doesn’t seem to be suffering in the same way that some of the other patients are. Kerner’s methods are very different from Chettles, but even they have very little effect on her. Stuck for ideas he invites a ‘mesmerist’ to try to cure her, but after he is left wondering if she really is mad, or the revelation that she reveals whilst under his influence is true.
The second part of the book is set in London. Kerner heads there in search of Harleston after she manages to escape Crakethorn. There is strong spiritualist undercurrent in the city with various seances and events taking place. It feels creepy that the first part of the book. In the final part of the book, they are all back at Crakethorn, and it is slowly dawning on Kerner just why Chettle has the asylum in the first place…
I liked the brooding atmospheric backdrop to all the scenes in the book. It feels well researched and authentic too, from the way that she describes the smells from the dogs, the way that different classes interact and the barbaric treatment of the patients in the asylum. The supernatural and spiritualist elements feel like they have been lightly dusted over the plot, they are there to enhance rather than be the central element. It has some really strong female characters too, but I thought it was overly convoluted and complicated and for me was missing that one moment of utter dread that a book of this style demands. Not entirely my book, but I thought it was well written nonetheless.