The Somnambulist - Essie Fox

The Somnambulist - Essie Fox

This is a fairly Gothic book, about a seventeen-year-old, Phoebe Turner (whose father's name is William Turner. Spot the reference.), who goes to work as a lady's companion to the wife of the enigmatic Nathaniel Samuels, discovering some fairly unpleasant truths about her own family en route. The first half of the book feels very much like Jane Eyre : the mysterious master of the house, the unfriendly servants, the madwoman. Then, mercifully, it turns out that The Somnambulist is not going to be a rerun of Jane Eyre. It is, in fact, even more Gothicly unpleasant than that. Incest. Rape. Murder. You name it, it's in there. And the Salvation Army gets it pretty bad, too. For some reason, Essie Fox thinks it's all right to amend this by writing in the notes, "I sincerely hope that my fictional representations cause no offence to current Church members, for as Phoebe Turner says in the novel, "The Hallelujahs [the fictional equivalent of the Salvation Army] do a great deal of good.""

That's all right, then. An entire novel of portraying the Salvation Army as nutters and prudes can be amended by a single sentence at the back.

And time in the novel is really annoying. Fox misses whole episodes out, and then goes back to explain them, which means it's quite hard to sort out where you are in the storyline. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for this, and it happens quite a lot. And the occasional third-person chapters scattered through the mainly first-person narrative completely destroys the illusion of the diary.

Oh, and Fox springs a little surprise on us at the end:

"I tried to imagine what they must see: a window with the sash half raised; light dazzling white against dark panes; a young woman who held a child in her arms."

What? Where did the child come from? It's alluded to, very briefly, a few chapters earlier; and then nothing until it's about two. Why do we hear nothing of its birth, the way its family loved it, its first years? Why the gap? It shouldn't be there, and it smacks of bad storytelling, just randomly throwing something in at the end of the novel to make it more interesting.

The good thing about this book, though, was the Victorian detail: the sights and smells of the East End, the characters and glamour of the theatre. That's basically why I've given it three stars. It is well researched, and the detail is exquisite. It doesn't make up for shoddy storytelling, though.