22 February 2021

Review: The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

In my years spent enjoying books, tv shows and movies set in the Victorian era (1837-1901) I can't believe I've never come across the art of shadow portraits and silhouette artists before. Popular from the mid 1700s, profiles of a person were painted or cut by hand from black cardboard in order to retain their likeness and often worn in lockets or mounted as gifts. They were a cheaper alternative to painted miniature portraits but began to fall out of fashion with the introduction of photography.

The fact that Laura Purcell was the author to introduce me to a silhouette artist was more than I could hope for. Her novel The Corset was one of my favourite books in 2018, so naturally I had high hopes for The Shape of Darkness.

Agnes Darken is a silhouette artist living in Victorian Bath struggling to make ends meet. Left to provide for her mother and orphaned nephew, she works hard to make enough money from her trade of cutting shades to support her family. When a sitter of hers dies, soon followed by another, Agnes worries she has somehow unwittingly caused their deaths.

Pearl is an eleven year old albino girl and spirit medium, and along with her half-sister Miss West, they hold seances to commune with spirits. Their sickly father is dying from Phossy jaw (phosphorus necrosis of the jaw) as a result of working in a match factory and the girls are left to run the household as best they can.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the murders, Agnes consults Pearl but together they are frightened by what they discover.

The Shape of Darkness is a gothic tale full of references that let me know immediately I was in Victorian England. Seances, ear trumpets, reticules and plenty of mourning etiquette was on display within the pages, making this a real pleasure to read. Here's an example from early on in the novel.
"Agnes finds the Boyles' residence almost at once. There is the telltale straw laid out before it to deaden the sound of wheels and the windows are shuttered fast. She adjusts her grip on the package. Perhaps this was not a wise notion, after all.
Black material swaddles the brass knocker. It makes a muted, pathetic sound as she lets it fall. Some moments later, the door opens like a tender wound. Behind it is a squat woman dressed in mourning, but the expression upon her face is one of harassment, not grief." Page 32-33
And another from later on in the novel:
"The glass hearse displays a coffin suffocating in lilies. It travels feet first so that its occupant cannot look back and beckon others to follow.
Yet they do follow: mourners trail wearily behind on foot and the family creep along in their own elaborate carriage. They have not pulled the curtains for privacy. Each stricken and contorted countenance is on view.
Agnes knows she should lower her eyes in consideration of the family's pain, but she does not; no one does. Everyone peers into the carriage, eager to see the mark death has left on those it passed so closely by." Page 248
Laura Purcell has a gift for setting the scene in her novels and she does it so well. Author of The Silent Companions, The Corset and Bone China, I continue to enjoy the manner in which she conjures the hustle and bustle of her chosen setting. Here's another example if you haven't yet had the pleasure of her books.
"Everyone hurries: to the dyers, to the locksmith, to the grocers, to the chophouses that issue a malodour of hot beef fat. She cannot keep pace. And none of the men emerging from their work at the brewery possess enough gallantry to grant a lady a wide berth on the pavement." Page 96
This gothic delight of a novel is presented with a gorgeous cover design showing a character's silhouette on a visually stunning background of Victorian era scissors spotted with blood. A silhouette adorns the back of the book too and I believe this to be Pearl, with either Agnes or her sister on the front cover. If you've read the book, who do you think graces the cover?

Miss Darken must have one of the best character names of the year and she experiences her fair share of problems in the novel. Grieving the loss of her sister in a mysterious accident and recently recovering from ill health, her physician and brother-in-law Simon attempts to thwart her efforts to solve the case. Is she as emotionally frail as he suggests or is there more to it?

All is revealed in a surprising conclusion although I'm still chasing the absolute perfect ending that was The Corset and this fell a whisker short. Highly recommended for fans of Victorian era historical fiction and all things gothic.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I'm really looking forward to reading this one. Brilliant and enticing review!

    1. Thanks Theresa, you have a wonderfully gothic read ahead of you to enjoy :-)

  2. I've had this author on my radar for a while but I think The Corset had not yet been published in the US when I first tried to get a copy. This one sounds very interesting too. Thank you for the reminder of this talented author.

    I need to figure out how to do a widget with my TBR. For the first time, last month I put a couple piles into a box that I mentally called my TBR. However, I had so many library books out that I have been finishing them before I have really attacked the pile. But it's only February!

    1. So excited to hear this author is on your radar, I'd definitely start with The Corset (my favourite) or this one The Shape of Darkness.

      I love hearing how readers organise their books. Do you need a widget for your blog? I find the widgets on LibraryThing work really well in Blogger and they have plenty of options that you can personalise. GoodReads offers a few simple widgets so I use a combination of both here on my blog. Happy to help if you need.

      And yes, I can totally relate to the library vs existing TBR challenge. I have one library book out at the moment that I've renewed 4 times so far because I haven't read it yet, so I guess I'm having the opposite problem to you there.

      Thanks for visiting and let me know how you enjoy Laura Purcell, you're in for a treat!


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