20 Jun The Fascination by Essie Fox
A gothic magical mystery tour through Victorian England
I’ve been delving into historical fiction recently, with books based on real-life events, and dark undertones.
This story takes my reading a stage further – reflecting an even darker, more dangerous world than those I’ve been visiting, in a gripping tale of exploitation, danger and dastardly deeds all tied up in the universal themes of love, friendship and acceptance.
Keziah and Tilly Lovell are identical twins with a difference. For while Keziah is normal-sized, Tilly stopped growing at five – possibly due to a beating by her brutal father Alfred. He then compounds his sins by touring the girls around fairs to promote his laudanum-based elixir, then selling them on at fifteen to a mysterious man known as the Captain.
They move to the Captain’s house in London, and from there, enter the world of theatrical entertainment. For in the Victorian times in which they live, Tilly, also known as the Fairy Queen Matilda, is considered a freak, and draws in the crowds wherever she goes.
Meanwhile, at Dorney Hall outside London, young Theo Seabrook is both repulsed and fascinated by his cruel grandfather’s strange proclivity for collecting freakish and disturbing memorabilia – including the deformed body of a baby, a “werewolf’s” head and a “mermaid”.
Turned out of his home by his grandfather, who has never forgiven the boy for his mother’s death in childbirth, Theo makes his way to London and finds employment in a shop and museum of curiosities.
His path crosses with the twins, and gradually their stories come together as they face a common enemy who could bring about their downfall. For some people don’t just want to gawp at freaks – they want to own them, body and soul …
Shades of dark and light
This story was as dark and delicious as its premise suggests! From the very beginning, author Essie Fox draws us in to a disturbing world with fierce and fearsome imagery. When we learn Theo’s grandfather Lord Seabrook “looks like an owl and his nest is very dark” we just know that the story is going to take us deep into the belly of a Victorian world of Gothic proportions. A place where desperate folks make and follow their own rules as they fight for a better life for themselves, at the expense of those more vulnerable.
Yet there is lightness, too, in the variety of the characters we meet. Tilly could be considered a freak, like Martha, the harelip woman who runs the Captain’s household, and Aleksi, the hirsute “bear” who is his right hand man. But through Keziah and Theo’s eyes, we see right away that they are just people who want the same as everyone else – to be accepted and loved.
The Captain’s close-knit family provides warmth and relief not just for the twins but for the reader from the bleakness of the evil that lurks nearby.
The plot is well-paced, thrilling and disturbing as it moves between Dorney Hall, the country fairs and the seamier streets of London, but within the narrative there is plenty time for pause to watch the characters, in particular Keziah and Theo, grow in strength, wisdom and courage as they react to events around them.
Myth and Magic
There’s an air of myth and magic about the story, with the fairy-tale of Rose Red, Snow White and the Bear used as a parallel for the twins. Will they get the same happy ending, find their princes, and most importantly, find acceptance in the world into which they’ve been born?
Plot, characters, background and superb story-telling make The Fascination as fascinating as its title suggests – a must-read for fans of historical and Gothic fiction.
The Fascination is published by Orenda Books in hardback and ebook on June 22
About the Author
Essie Fox was born and raised in rural Herefordshire, which inspires much of her writing. After studying English Literature at Sheffield University, she moved to London where she worked for the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, and then book publishers George Allen & Unwin, before becoming self-employed in the world of art and design. Essie now spends her time writing historical gothic novels. Her debut, The Somnambulist, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards, and featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club. The Last Days of Leda Grey, set in the early years of silent film, was selected as The Times Historical Book of the Month. Essie is also the creator of the popular blog: The Virtual Victorian. She has lectured on this era at the V&A, and the National Gallery in London.
Thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me on this blogtour and to Orenda for the advance copy of the book.
Catch up with the rest of the blogtour at the links on the poster
More Reviews of Haunting Historical Novels
- The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
- The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey
- Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee