Title: The Corset
Writer: Laura Purcell
Publishing House: Raven Books
Date of Publication: September 20th 2018
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Perhaps I do have the liberty to come and go as I please. But I do not attend for my own amusement. I came for you. To offer some comfort.’’
Jesus Christ, this book…Where do I begin? After the outstanding The Silent Companions, Laura Purcell creates a story that is dark, haunting, atmospheric, mysterious and complex. So different to his successful predecessor and yet equally powerful and agonizingly intense. The Corset will surely enter the lists of the best reads of 2018, arriving just in time for the spookiest part of the year.
Dorothea is a young woman, born in the upper English society, aiming at comforting the women convicts in the Oakgate Prison. It is there that she meets Ruth, a sixteen-year-old girl, accused of vile murders, awaiting her trial. Dorothea is drawn to Ruth’s story because the young seamstress doesn’t claim she’s innocent. She is convinced that her hands led to the death of a number of people, through her stitches. Her unique ability as a seamstress becomes a murder weapon. Dorothea doesn’t know what to believe and she cannot imagine that Ruth’s story will lead her to doubt everything she’s ever taken for granted in her life and in her family…
‘’I’ve had enough of people talking behind my back.’’
The writing is exquisite. Beautiful in its darkness, raw and haunting. The Victorian era comes alive through the pages in all its grim and dark aspects and the two heroines are marvelously portrayed. Their voices are clearly different, their thoughts reflecting the views of their class and personal experiences. Even if you didn’t read the names at the beginning of each chapter, you would definitely understand whose story you’re reading.
What creates a special setting in The Corset? For me, the combination of certain supernatural factors and an all-too-real harsh social status. The heart of the story lies in a variety of traditions related to sewing. In many Northern European and Slavic traditions, the stitches on a cloak or a chemise were part of a spell to guarantee the safety of the fighting warrior. Think about the scabbard of Excalibur, stitched by Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon. In other tales, the stitches were part of ill-wishing and betrayal. Consider Kriemhild and Siegfried’s cloak in the saga of the Nibelungs. In Greece, we believe it is ill fortune to sew clothes while someone’s wearing them. If we can’t help it, we whisper a few words to exorcise the evil that may lead to death. In the old days, we believed that no one should mend your clothes apart from your mother and many men learnt how to sew as a result of this superstition. So, ill wishes while sewing can lead to disaster. A needle and thread can prove lethal and Ruth is convinced of that.
Another topic that belongs to the paranormal sphere is the pseudo-science of phrenology, one of my favourite ‘’absurd mock-science’’ moments. Phrenology was one of the obsessions of the Victorian age, a study of a human’s skull in an attempt to decipher the character and the inclinations. In an era that nothing would come to surface because of a severe notion of propriety, many tried to see beyond the tangible world and its inhabitants and this is how the frenzy for all things paranormal was born. Dorothea tries to answer the question of evil. What if any evil propensity could be discovered at a young age and eliminated? This is an issue that science still tries to address. Are we born ‘’bad’’ or certain circumstances lead us there?
Now, these supernatural factors are brilliantly married to the bitter circumstances that influence the two women’s lives. The living conditions and the social status of Dorothea and Ruth are perfectly juxtaposed. Dorothea is a little bit too protected from the dark world and it is through Ruth that her eyes open. She acquires a newfound strength, adding to her own conviction of refusing to become just a wife and a mother. Ruth was forced to meet life face-to-face in cruel ways and we see that both women are actually in a prison of their own. One literally, the other socially.
The character development is nothing short of outstanding, with Ruth being the most complex character because of her life background and her grim adventures. I loved her as I loved Dorothea to whom I found myself fervently connected. There is a rich cast of secondary characters that are nuanced, some of them likable, others much less so but all with their own part to play in the advancement of this dark story. Sometimes, this is the function of a character and I don’t see why should this be a fault. Whatever.
I’ve read a multitude of books that fall into the Gothic Fiction genre. The Corset is on a pedestal among them. So different to The Silent Companions, equally beautiful in a twisted, dark, sad way. I can’t wait to see what the amazing Laura Purcell has in store for us in the future!
‘’At what point do we cease to be merciful, and become fools?’’
Many thanks to the PigeonholeHQ and Laura Purcell for the serialized ARC. It’s been a beautiful, excruciatingly agonizing experience in the best possible way. Sharing views in real time with other readers and discovering the writer’s own thoughts in the pages made this reading even more memorable.