Book Review

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

Wicked deeds require the cover of darkness…

Silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another…

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them. But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…

What secrets lie hidden in the darkness?

The Shape of Darkness is the latest novel from Laura Purcell and it’s one that I really enjoyed.  I was hooked from the first page and gripped throughout. 

Set in the nineteenth century, the narrative alternates between the perspectives of Agnes and Pearl.  These are two very different characters, and I loved the contrast between them.  Agnes is a silhouette artist, barely able to make ends meet through this dying artform.  Her loneliness is palpable throughout, she suffers ill health following a bout of pneumonia, and while the circumstances aren’t clear until later in the novel, she has clearly experienced personal tragedy and betrayal during her life.  The only support she has comes from her brother-in-law, Simon, although she seems reluctant to impose too much on his kindness.  She’s a sympathetic character – perhaps a little too prone to swooning at the merest hint of unpleasantness, and yet I enjoyed having the perspective of a protagonist who is older than most, and one who isn’t married or widowed despite the time in which the novel is set. 

Pearl is another unusual protagonist in that she is only eleven years old.  She comes across as being old for her age at times, but only in the way that some children are forced to grow up too quickly due to their circumstances.  Her albinism keeps her inside for much of the time, unable to endure too much daylight. She is young and naïve, and her half-sister, Myrtle, doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of her abilities as a medium, and the seances held by Pearl and Myrtle are interesting. While most of the spiritualist business was smoke and mirrors, it does seem that Pearl is genuinely gifted, and this adds an intriguing element to the narrative. 

It’s this ability that brings Agnes into Pearl’s life, as Agnes’s clients begin to meet an untimely end shortly after sitting for her.  Desperate to know who is behind their deaths, Agnes seeks to contact the victims on the other side.  It’s a fantastic premise and I enjoyed seeing the events of the novel unfold.  I did work out some of what was going on, and yet Purcell manages to keep a few surprises up her sleeve.  I don’t like to talk about endings in a review for obvious reasons, but I liked that this novel ended a certain way.  It was surprising yet satisfying. 

The Shape of Darkness is set in Bath, and it’s nice to visit a setting outside of London.  The time and place are beautifully evoked throughout, and I loved the way in which the old and the new are juxtaposed, with science and spiritualism warring it out, and Agnes desperately trying to cling onto an almost obsolete artform in the advent of the photograph.  The Shape of Darkness is a wonderful Gothic novel with interesting and unusual characters as well as an intriguing story.  Recommended. 

The Shape of Darkness is published by Raven Books, and is available now in hardback, eBook, and audio.

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