Fiction, Reviews

‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman

Any reader of Victorian literature, or any student of the history of the period, will be aware of the concept of the fallen woman. If not, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It’s a depressingly detailed page. For an era in which society began to move away from the government of Christianity (thank you Darwin and your fellow evolutionists!), the 19th century was one that made a national phenomenon out of the concept of a woman fallen from God’s Grace.

Grace Marks, the protagonist of Alias Grace, was a real person. In 1843 she was convicted of murdering her employer, Mr Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. This brought her to the public attention, and eventually, to that of Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace is a fictional account of Grace’s life, the murders, and her time in prison afterwards. Her supposed accomplice is James McDermott, who also worked for Mr Kinnear. He was hanged, but she was spared that sentence at the last moment, and sent to prison. She became a momentary celebrity, with the trial being covered widely in the media.

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The frame of the novel consists of meetings, in prison, between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan. He is interested in criminal behaviour and mental health, and aspires to open his own modern asylum with progressive treatments. He meets with Grace and asks her about the murders; during her trial she stated that she could not remember most of what happened, and Dr Jordan spends a lot of his time trying to get her to remember. Even though large sections of the book are narrated by Grace, we are never quite sure exactly how much she does or does not remember. Grace is an unreliable narrator, but so is Margaret Atwood.

One of the things Dr Jordan wants Grace to speak about is the relationship between her and McDermott. In the papers at the time of the trial it is claimed that she is his ‘paramour’, implying they are lovers. This incriminates Grace further by implying she colluded with McDermott entirely, and that they had the same aims. Grace’s version is that they were not lovers, that she did not like him, and that he killed both Kinnear and Nancy. She was there at the time, and tried to convince him not to do it; that was all. During the trial the media, as well as the members of the court, are frankly obsessed by the question of whether or not Grace and McDermott were lovers, and so is Dr Jordan. This is partly to establish their relationship, and how this played a part in the murders; but it also because of the desire for scandal and sensationalism. If it was proved that Grace has slept with McDermott, she would be even more guilty. Even if proved innocent she would still be guilty of premarital sex, and would still be judged by society.

Her apparent lack of memory makes her something of an enigma during the trial, and indeed she is still very enigmatic with Dr Jordan – even in her first person narrative. People want to understand her, to understand the mind of a person who has committed a crime, and they are obsessed with her virtue. She must either be innocent and therefore ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as a woman should be; or she should be guilty and therefore prove the weakness and inherent sin of woman, and be ‘fallen’. Society condemns her to be one or the other, and in my opinion she is somewhere in between, like most people. As with our modern treatment of female murderers, Grace is demonised so much partly because she is a woman, and we find it harder to believe that women can be as evil as men. As soon as they show any sign of wrongdoing, in any way, we are very quick to demonise them. Look at the media portrayals of female murderers, such as Aileen Wournos or Myra Hindley, or even those of non-criminals that are perceived as doing something wrong, such as Theresa May or Katie Hopkins. These women may do things we don’t like (or that are monstrous in case of the two former), but they are always treated differently to men who do similar things. How could a woman kill another person, or a child? How could a woman be tough or vitriolic?

The duality of ‘pure vs fallen’ still exists today, even without the explicitly religious context. In the eyes of the public, and of Dr Jordan, Grace must be one or the other, and there is little room for complexity in her character. The Victorian ignorance of the human psyche is frustrating, but the demonisation of women is infuriating. Mental illness is also demonised to some extent, and as the novel goes on it seems that this may affect Grace too. I’m not going to write about what happens at the end of the novel for those who haven’t read it, but the duality is very clear there as well. Grace must be either an angel or a demon, and nothing in between. Women must be either the angel in the house, or the demon in the asylum.

For anyone to be equal, they should be allowed to show their complexity and humanity rather than conform to a stereotype. Grace is trapped within hers, and it affects her whole life. If she had been a man she would either have been hanged with McDermott, or sent to prison forever and forgotten about. Dr Jordan is so fascinated with her partly because of the ambiguity over her guilt, and also because she is a woman in her particular situation. We are never quite sure whether she is guilty or not, and in some ways that was the right choice on the part of Atwood; how can we ever know the reality of another person, or what really happened? How can we ever know if a person is good or evil – or indeed if it’s possible to just be one or the other?

*

Alias Grace was first published in Canada and the UK in 1996 by McLelland & Stewart, and Bloomsbury Publishing. I read the 2001 Virago paperback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles here.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

UK Headline cover. Image: goodreads.com

UK Headline cover. Image: goodreads.com

Having recently read Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great and not having read My Last Duchess (Daisy Goodwin’s first novel), I was not sure what to expect with The Fortune Hunter. The blurb promised the unhappy glamour of the life of Sisi, Empress of Austria, coupled with the excitement of English fox hunting – would that be a good mix? Would this be just another ‘romantic’ historical novel with no substance? Luckily I knew nothing about Sisi going in and only found out that the characters of Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird were based on real people once I was over halfway through the novel. My only expectations were that I would recognise the society and manners from other historical books I had read set in that period (around 1875), and it would probably be a bit of a ‘romp’ thanks to the love triangle at the centre of the plot.

Though I knew she had written My Last Duchess I was mildly surprised to see Daisy Goodwin come out with another novel, and one so well publicised as this, given that most of my knowledge of her was as a compiler of popular poetry anthologies. I worried her writing would be too commercial and rom-com-y. There is an element of this in The Fortune Hunter, but I wouldn’t class it as a rom-com. As the title suggests there is a desire for power throughout, and of course ‘Hunter’ puns on the role that fox hunting plays in the novel. Sisi is bored of her life at court and her distant husband, so she comes to England incognito (though of course everyone knows she is there) to ride with the hunt. She is documented as an excellent rider, and is depicted as such – a fearless rider, unlike other ladies at the time. She is feared and revered, and none of her entourage can keep up with her. So, Sisi decides to acquire a pilot – someone to ride with her and guide her in the hunt. Bay Middleton is known as the best rider in England, and Sisi decides she wants him.

The novel begins, however, with Charlotte. Little is known about the real Charlotte, and she is presented here as a rather Austen-type heroine, refusing to be like all the other girls and sighing at her brother’s fiancee Augusta (also an Austen type), who is determined to mould Charlotte into the perfect society lady and land her a man. Goodwin gives Charlotte photography as an interest, and her passion is described beautifully. The significance of the invention of photography is explored throughout the story as Charlotte’s lens picks up details that a flattering painter would not. It also, crucially, gives her a sense of freedom and purpose. Charlotte and Bay meet through Charlotte’s brother Fred, and the attraction between them slowly grows.

As readers I think we are supposed to quite fancy Bay, though we learn that he is known as a ladies’ man and has just had an affair with a married woman, whose child might be his (this is also based on the real Bay), though after the first third of the book we don’t hear any more on that topic. Charlotte catches his eye and though he ‘has a way with the ladies’ he isn’t quite sure how to handle her. She is confident and does not instantly give in to his compliments and good looks, and Bay has to win her over – something new to him. Someone he doesn’t have to win over however is the Empress, Sisi. It is obvious from the start that she has the hots for him, and he in turn is attracted to her skill as a rider and their shared passion for horses. She is of course beautiful, said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, and it isn’t long before things escalate. Here we have a conventional love triangle, with Bay torn between two very different women. While Charlotte hopes for romance and perhaps marriage, Sisi is after a covert affair; but Bay follows both their leads, charming Charlotte and sleeping with Sisi. I found this a bit un-gentlemanly to say the least, especially as Bay is constantly thinking about how wonderful Charlotte is, then the next minute being desperate to get Sisi out of that dress. There is also the depiction of Queen Victoria, who appears in several scenes. She is the antithesis of the glamorous and controlled Sisi, and Goodwin does not hold back when describing the flaws of one of our greatest monarchs, even if she is using free indirect speech. Still, it was a little hard to stomach.

I have to say I rather enjoyed The Fortune Hunter. While it is a bit of a romp and not entirely serious, it is a great story about the independence of women and the determination (of all people) to be free and live as they choose. I admired the characters who displayed that determination, Charlotte in particular. In a lot of ways the book is about her more than anyone else. While Sisi in an unapproachable Empress, and Bay while charming and likeable is still a bit free with his morals – but Charlotte is relatable and down to earth, almost (almost) on a level with Anne Elliot.

*

Published in April 2014 by Headline (UK). My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

Kipling and Trix by Mary Hamer (2012)

The premise for this novel is simple – that the story of Rudyard Kipling’s sister Trix is fascinating. Who even knew he had a sister, the blurb exclaims. Author Mary Hamer wrote a blog post for me about why she chose to write about Trix (read it here) and I loved the idea of exploring the story of this woman ‘behind the scenes’ in the life of one of England’s most famous writers.

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(image via goodreads.com)

Kipling and Trix covers pretty much the entire lives of the siblings, from their early years in India, to the years they spent living in Southsea after their parents decided they needed to be sent Home; and all their adventures after that. The years in Southsea – when they were both still children – prove extremely formative as Rudyard cannot forgive his parents, his mother in particular, for sending him and Trix away to live with a strictly religious woman, Mrs Holloway, who is often harsh and mean. Trix on the other hand refers to Mrs Holloway as ‘Auntie’ and even asks to be sent back there for a Christmas holiday, while Rudyard goes to see their Aunt Georgie and her children. Every now and then there is some suggestion that Mrs Holloway was unspeakably cruel to them and one suspects something rather dark and unsettling, but no truth of this is ever revealed. The disturbance seems to come from Rudyard’s feelings of abandonment and his bewilderment that Trix would willingly spend more time with Mrs Holloway. The fact that her cruelty is played up means that there is a sort of anti climax when nothing is ‘revealed’ – for most of the book you feel as if there is some great secret about what ‘really happened’ in Southsea. It is true the Mrs Holloway was unfair, mean, and sometimes neglectful towards Rudyard (this is backed up by his accounts of his time with her), and more favourable towards Trix as she hoped that Trix would marry her son.

Time advance quickly in this novel. It is divided into several very long chapters that each cover at least five years at a time. Within each chapter skips ahead are denoted only by a page break and a brief mention in the text – more than once I got lost and was unclear about how many years had passed. In the last third of the book everyone is suddenly much older and I felt like I had missed something.

I felt that Hamer tried to cover too much time in her novel – so much happens that sometimes things feel a little rushed, and the style gets a little list-like, and as I say you get a bit lost with what happened when. Rudyard and his wife Carrie moved an awful lot, spending years in America with her family, several winters in South Africa, and living in several different homes in England. The pace of the book means that it feels like they are a bit all over the place. Similarly Trix is back and forth between India and England, as well as Scotland, with her husband Colonel Fleming. They marry more because they should than that they love each other, and their relationship deteriorates rather quickly.

This is mostly caused by Trix’s ‘problems’. She was a devotee of automatic writing and spiritualism, two practices that were hugely popular but hugely suspicious in Victorian England. Trix feels that she receives messages from spirits and her hand is compelled to write them down. Each communication is preceded by a headache and she often becomes hysterical; a couple of friends encourage her, but her husband and her family see it as a kind of lunacy – as it would have been called then – and she is subsequently ‘treated’ for this behaviour for the rest of her life.

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(image via amazon.com)

From the point at which the decision is made to call a doctor, Trix does not appear in the novel for nearly forty pages, and after that most of her appearances are quite short and followed by her family’s exasperation as caring for her. In Hamer’s depiction she is clearly unstable but she is also treated like a child, or an idiot who cannot think rationally, and her absence from the page only enhances this. The treatment of Trix stirs up anger at the injustice of the attitude and treatment of people with any kind of mental health issue (or what was perceived as a mental health issue) during this period. At one point the Board of Lunacy are mentioned. Though Trix is allowed to write ‘normally’ and becomes quite successful, she is constantly supervised and never allowed to live a normal life. She has no freedom.

The novel ends with Rudyard’s death and Trix taking a trip to the zoo to show people from the Kipling Society around. She is happy with the animals, and this is apparently some sort of redemption for her, despite being nearly seventy and still not allowed to go anywhere on her own. I felt that Trix was ‘kept’ for her entire life and at no point in the novel does she seem truly happy or content, and she is never really allowed to be herself. She is considered a problem that must be dealt with.

I enjoyed Hamer’s style, despite several issues with commas (though that is down to proofing issues), and felt fully absorbed in the day to day lives of the Kiplings. Kipling and Trix is not a plot driven novel and there is real beauty in the depiction of everyday occurrences and the ongoing struggles of life. Rudyard’s wife Carrie is a mostly sympathetic character, though Rudyard’s mother and Trix both find her cold and always trying to steal ‘Ruddy’ away. Some strange issues there about possession in relationships.

Though they are apart for most of the novel, Kipling and Trix really does explore the sometimes close and often fraught relationship between the siblings. They have a bond in their childhood experiences and memories, but find it increasingly hard to remain close as adults. Trix sees her brother as one of ‘Them’, those who have put her away and treated her as unwell, and she resents him for this; while he worries at her condition and tries to write to her and see her, but is constantly rejected and hurt. If anything this novel teaches us that no relationship is easy, and that Trix’s story is sad and frustrating as well as fascinating.

*

Published by Aurora Metro in 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

Best of 2012: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

The Pleasures of Men was one of the few books this year I actually bought of my own volition, having been too late for the review copies. It appealed to me so much that I wanted to read and review it regardless of its publication date and press campaign.

The cover was what struck me first. I think covers are extremely important in terms of establishing the tone and feel of the novels behind them – they can be as evocative as a piece of art (and in some cases they can be considered art in themselves). The cover of The Pleasures of Men instantly tells you the setting is Victorian (from the woman’s dress) and there is a murder mystery (big bloody knife) – but there is also the question of gender. The cover depicts a woman holding a bloody knife, but the title implies that either a man is the murderer or the woman’s murders are the result of the ‘pleasures’ of men, i.e. some sort of revenge for the treatment of women at the hands of men. None of this is clear and so we are intrigued and want to find out more. See how important covers are?

2012 paperback cover. Image: viewpoint.birmingham.gov.uk

2012 paperback cover. Image: viewpoint.birmingham.gov.uk

And what a fitting cover it is. Central character Catherine is an orphan living with her frankly weird old uncle in his house fully of creepy artefacts and dusty old books. We slowly discover more and more about her past, and why she believes herself to be evil. Meanwhile a spate of murders occur across London, all apparently committed by the same person. Catherine becomes obsessed with the killer, and follows the murders in the newspapers – even going so far as to visit some of the crime scenes to try and imagine what must have happened to these girls.

While the set-up of a Victorian serial killer preying on housemaids and prostitutes isn’t very original, author and historian Kate Williams takes the story down a new route by adding in Catherine’s obsession, and her own psychological issues. This is more like a modern detective novel or TV series in which the detective – amateur or professional – gets too caught up with the crimes and their story becomes as important as that of the murderer and the victims. The story focuses on Catherine as a person rather than the murderer – it is her story over anyone else’s.

Kate Williams. Image: sites.google.com/site/kwilliamsauthor/

Kate Williams. Image: sites.google.com/site/kwilliamsauthor/

Williams is also an expert at depicting in vivid detail life in Victorian London. We see all the grime and dirt, the sickness and disease, the poverty and misery. Catherine lives near Spitalfields – not considered a nice or safe area – and when she is obliged to attend social functions we see the different layers of London society and the different faces of the city.

As you can tell I really enjoyed this novel and tore through it quite quickly – I just had to find out the truth! There is the question of the identity of the murderer, but also Catherine’s past. Like the novels of Sarah Waters this is real ‘page-turner’ that is also expertly written and researched, and steers clear of trashiness or cliches. Definitely one of my favourite books of 2012.

*

The Pleasures of Men was published in 2012 by Penguin. You can read my original review here.

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Fiction, Reviews

Notes: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

Tom-All-Alone’s caused a lot of (positive) fuss when it came out earlier this year, but I don’t really have a good reason for not having read it before now, except that its association with Charles Dickens seemed to be a big selling point and I have honestly never been a fan of Dickens. I know, I know. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I was sent a proof of Lynn Shepherd’s new novel, A Treacheous Likeness. This Victorian mystery focusing on Percy Shelley, as well as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, interested me greatly as I studied the Romantic poets at university and always enjoyed reading about them. Though it is not a sequel to Tom-All-Alone’s, A Treacherous Likeness also stars detective Charles Maddox, and is set directly after the earlier book. Not wanting to miss anything and seizing the opportunity, I read Tom-All-Alone’s straight away.

2012 paperback edition – I love this cover!

Being a big fan of Sarah Waters and having really enjoyed The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams, I knew I would enjoy the Victorian setting and the murder-mystery plot. It was really only the Dickens link that had previously been putting me off, which is ridiculous. Shepherd states in her acknowledgements that Bleak House was a huge inspiration (along with Collins’ The Woman in White), and ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’ was an early title for Bleak House, and there are many characters, settings, scenes, events and even chapter titles in Shepherd’s novel that Dickens wrote first. So if you like Dickens, great. If you don’t, off-putting. But luckily, once I actually started the book, I forgot about Dickens. This book is amazing in its own right and Shepherd knows what she’s doing. Every now and then the sheer amount of open-ended information that Charles is gathering in his cases meant that I got a little lost, and the Chadwick case gets a little too sidelined for my taste, but it doesn’t matter really. Likewise Hester’s narrative could have been beefed up a bit more, but once you’re into the last third it all comes together and you’re just glad you still reading.

Tom-All-Alone’s is not for the faint-hearted, and I am still reeling from what I just read, but I loved it. Lynn Shepherd is a clever girl and I cannot wait to get started on A Treacherous Likeness. I might do that now actually…

*

Tom-All-Alone’s was published in hardback in February 2012, and in paperback in September 2012, by Corsair, an imprint of Constable and Robinson. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

Another great book by a graduate of and now lecturer at Royal Holloway (where I went). Must be something in the water…

I’d been eyeing this book for a while on Amazon and GoodReads, and finally bought a copy in Waterstones. As a huge fan of Sarah Waters and a good unreliable narrator, this is just my sort of thing. Plus there’s a haughty, faceless Victorian lady on the cover holding a bloody knife. And that title…  all very intriguing, if unpleasant.

2012 Penguin paperback edition

First of all, Kate Williams is amazing. She is one of those super-duper amazing overqualified people that have spent their life at university and are highly respected and praised and revered… and to boot, she’s also a great writer. This is her first foray into fiction, having previously worked on historical biographies (I particularly want to read England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, and only partly because I first heard of Hamilton in Blackadder the Third) and academic hoohah. She has a DPhil and two MAs and now teaches an MA, as well as all her writing and researching and appearing on the BBC looking amazing and knowledgeable. Jealous, moi?

Kate Williams

Now, to the book. The Pleasures of Men is set in 1840s London and centres around Catherine, an orphan living with her mysterious uncle on Princes Street near Spitalfields, one of the most dangerous parts of a very dangerous city. 1840s London was not a nice place to be. An economic crash left the city’s inhabitants with little money and even less hope, meaning that the entire place was uncared for and desperate. Catherine has a mysterious past and her uncle pays her little attention. The house is ‘rambling’ and covered with African masks and various other souvenirs from her uncle’s youthful travels to Africa and the Far East. Catherine has few possessions and her only friend (if you can call her that) is the maid, Jane. She tells the reader early on that she grew up in affluent Richmond, and we wonder how she ended up where she is, and what happened to her family.

Satisfyingly, a lot of questions about Catherine’s past are answered for the reader, but she remains mysterious in herself and hard to pinpoint. It becomes clear she has spent some time in some sort of psychiatric hospital, and, as they say, the plot thickens. Keepsakes were taken away from her there, and she has never got them back. Left alone and an outsider, Catherine lives with her uncle – a last vestige of family, of somewhere to go; but she is lonely and lives in a bare room. The reader feels sorry for her, but also wonders why she is her current situation and whether it is best for her or not – could she lead a normal life with the ladies of society and one day marry? Or is she destined to remain alone in a rambling house in a bad part of town?

London, near Spitalfields, 1840

A series of murders capture the attention of the London press. The murderer is dubbed The Man of Crows after the plural noun – a group of crows is a murder of crows. He picks on young working class girls, and leaves them mutilated, their chests open and their limbs splayed to make them look like birds. Everyone is scandalised and fascinated by the gossip, Catherine included. Her past has convinced her that she is evil and bad (for reasons the reader will discover), and she decides that by taking an interest in The Man of Crows and trying to discover his motives and who he is, she might be rid of her own evil. She convinces herself that her past sins will protect her from him. As she hears about the murders through newspapers and gossip, she begins to imagine the story of each girl and how they felt as they were stalked and cornered by The Man. She writes her ideas down, as if it is a novel, and becomes more and more fixated on the mysterious killer.

Catherine is a brilliant creation. With her family gone and her blaming herself for all her misfortune, she is tormented by her ‘dark thoughts’ and bad dreams and is fascinated by the pain and suffering of others. Her uncle is creepy and strange, his house dark and full of odd objects. Even Catherine’s room has African masks staring out from the walls. Catherine is at times afraid of him, at others bored by his talk and his nagging her to try with visitors. Early on the Janissers visit with their son Constantine, hoping to make a match between him and Catherine. Suffice to say it does not go well. Everyone in society thinks Catherine is strange and though they pay her attention you get the feeling they shake their heads and laugh at her after she is gone.

Spending almost all her time alone, Catherine is swept away by her own imaginings. She becomes obsessed with the dead girls, picturing their faces and their hands, the blood on their clothes and in their hair. She imagines The Man of Crows as he plans which girl to choose, watching groups of them on the street. They are prostitutes, shop girls, maids, and he hates them. Catherine tries to get inside his head, and she gets lost inside her own.

Romola Garai as Victorian prostitute Sugar in the BBC adaptation of Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White

Williams’ writing really is brilliant. Catherine is so vivid, so real, that the reader feels as she does and gets so wrapped up in her thoughts that there is no time to feel emotion for her plight other than her own sadness. The sections that are extracted from Catherine’s manuscript on the girls and The Man of Crows are just as vivid and at times really rather frightening and unnerving. Williams knows just how to make her readers uneasy and nervous, roping them in to the scenarios and putting them right there with the frightened girls and the deadly Man.

Two chapters are narrated by Catherine’s now-missing maid, Grace, while she was at her previous job with the Belle-Smyths, whom Catherine knows. She and Catherine each describe their first meeting at the Belle-Smyths’ house. Catherine is enchanted with her, a pretty girl and so skilled and graceful. Grace is likewise intrigued by Catherine, and soon comes to work for her. Initially, from Catherine’s narration, it seems that her relationship with Grace was a very significant part of her life, but as the story progresses it fades and is placed amongst Catherine’s other memories and the fears of her current existence. Grace is interesting. Even though she narrates, we discover little about her and her motives, only that she is manipulative and Catherine thought her better than she was. In the end, her role is more as part of Catherine’s psyche, another lost girl for her to obsess over. Towards the end of the book Catherine convinces herself that The Man of Crows has killed Grace and insists on telling everyone this, but she actually seems to think about her less as a person, more as an image of a girl murdered in her youth, with so much more life to live.

More than anything this is Catherine’s story. We find out about her family and the evil thing she is convinced she has done at stages throughout the novel, and her character takes shape. Her obsession with the dead girls at least means that she begins to think about someone other than herself and her own misfortune. She has suffered greatly, but not like these poor girls who were murdered in alleyways. Her experiences in the novel are a harsh reconnection with the world outside her family and the psychiatric hospital, but in the end it does her good. She is a troubled girl, but her obsession with evil forces her to look at and analyse the supposed evil within herself.

*

Published by Penguin in January 2012.

 

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