Imagine an intoxicating narrative with more twists and turns than Downton Abbey (without the red flags), and flashes of M R James, Sarah Waters, and Wilkie Collins. That is what Essie Fox has achieved with her debut novel, The Somnambulist, a story that continues to haunt the reader long after the final page has been reached.
Phoebe Turner is a 17-year-old girl living in the East End of London with Maud, her Evangelical Christian mother. Maud has declared implacable war on sin, campaigning for theatres and bars to be closed and an end to all fun. She disapproves of her glamorous sister Cissy who sings on the stage at Wilton’s Music Hall, although Phoebe adores her. When Cissy dies of an overdose, Phoebe is distraught and finds herself trapped in a circumscribed and impoverished world. There is a welcome turn of events when the wealthy and mysterious Nathaniel Samuels offers her a position as companion to his wife. Leaving her old life behind, Phoebe travels to Dinwood Court, the Samuels’ labyrinthine Herefordshire mansion, described disarmingly as an “idyll of peace and perfection, an oasis, an Eden, a heaven on earth.” Lydia, her laudanum-addicted mistress, is a complete recluse with a tendency to sleepwalk and mutter about her troubled past. Phoebe is inexorably drawn into the family’s dark web of lies, gradually uncovering the truth about both them and herself.
Essie Fox creates an almost unbearable level of tension, and Phoebe’s terror is at times palpable as she embarks upon a long awakening. The plot seems to follow a well-trodden path, but suddenly veers off in an entirely different direction, with the author cleverly subverting classic sensation novel tricks.
As creator of the super Virtual Victorian blog, Essie’s eye for detail is extraordinary and accurate, with her scenes vividly drawn. Fin-de-siècle London is brought to life with an eerie glow, contrasting with the dazzling opening scenes set at Wilton’s. The descriptions of Dinwood Court are a delicious Gothic confection with spookiness lurking behind every door, like a malevolent advent calendar.
The sleepwalking theme suggested by the title is cleverly adumbrated throughout the novel, with a pervading sense of ghostliness and phantasmagoria. There are more literal allusions, too, with references to Millais’ painting The Somnambulist, which recently sold at auction for a surprisingly low £75K and was said to have been inspired by The Woman in White.
The Somnambulist is an exciting, intelligent and compelling novel, and I can’t wait for the next one. Glorious.