Dora says nothing but sinks back into silence, concentrating on distilling the pain of the needles. She is so much more comfortable this time; now she reclines on a chaise longue, with her arm resting on a small table beside itThis is the scene I have stuck in my head on finishing Rachael King's new novel Magpie Hall. It is powerfully evocative of the whole relationship between Dora and Henry - the growing attraction, the need to 'illustrate' their love on their skin; and more than that, on Dora's part, to somehow ink her skin with the desire that is bursting inside her but that she cannot express due to societal strictures. A desire for Henry, for adventure, for an independent life.
Henry has allowed McDonald's apprentice to tattoo him, a small picture of a spider on his leg, and so far the boy is making good progress; husband and wife lie side by side and now and again take each other's free hands. Dora feels a current pass between them - the shared experience creates something that sparks and crackles like electricity. McDonald feels it too - she knows he does. He shifts and sighs in his seat, glancing at their interlocked fingers. If he thinks them strange he says nothing - it is not his place after all..... [Magpie Hall]
It is the late 1800s and Henry has bought and renovated Magpie Hall - a transplanted gothic castle in the Canterbury plains - for his new wife. Their stories are told in the third-person as the novel unfolds, but the main narrator is Henry's unhappy great-great-granddaughter, Rosemary, who has come to stay and write in Magpie Hall, which has been vacated after her loved grandfather died. She has inherited the taxidermy collection begun by Henry and continued by the grandfather, and she has also - it seems - inherited a love of tattoos. There are a number of skeletons in the Magpie Hall cupboards - not least what happened to Dora [was she drowned or murdered by Henry?], and then there's the story of Henry's cabinet of curiosities that went mysteriously astray.
There is another insistent secret that pushes its way into the story via ghostly sightings and some bizarre events, which seem to come straight from the pages of a Bronte novel. And this is no accident, as we know by now that Rosemary is writing a thesis on Victorian gothic novels: Wuthering Heights looms large in reality and by suggestion. Everything simmers away, until suddenly, the novel is turned on its head, and we discover the truths, or what we think are the truths, behind the ghosts and the gossip. At the same time, nothing is necessarily reliable ...
Great stuff. Rachael King spins a good yarn, and one that has a powerful aesthetic. Like her first novel The Sound of Butterflies, she chooses elements that both fascinate and repel and blends them with the morbid, the erotic, the eerie and the exquisitely beautiful. There is the same fascination with collecting and obsession and science, and with the stuff of illustration - how to show and hold and remember those evanescent things: love and beauty?
My favourite things:
*the tattooing - what makes someone want to be inked, and the history and detail behind it - Rachael's descriptions are visceral and exciting
*the taxidermy and its links to the controversial work and logic of Buller: kill to preserve
*the historic story especially the emergence of Dora's character
*the subtle references to the Bronte novels
*the twist in the tale - unreliability in the narration of a story is always compelling, I think, because it most accurately represents the stuff of story-telling
My not so favourite things:
*I didn't engage with modern day Rosemary or feel much empathy for her - she is too self-conscious for my liking and not quite convincing enough
* I felt the Bronte material fell heavily on the page at times - for example, meeting masculine young 'Sam the farmhand' who hunts rabbits etc made me feel like there was a long (Ha)worthy finger pointing and saying 'He's one of mine!' [Not by name but by nature.]
*I wanted more of Dora.
And here's where you need to understand how unreliable I am at this point in the review - because I know Rachael, I was terribly excited by Magpie Hall so I read it quickly and through a lurgy-induced haze [see previous post]. I don't think I had all my wits about me when the whole novel was turned on its head, and, frankly, I'm still trying to work out all the references and clues - there are some hugely satisfying links between the two stories.
I think I really need to re-read Magpie Hall properly to 'get' it all, and I may have been too hard on Rosemary and young Sam ... So take what you will from this. There's certainly no getting away from the fact that it's been a blast - there's just the sort of uncertainty I like in fiction, and material that changes the way I see things.
'Two for joy' it is, then.
Book cover and web links in previous post.