As I reached the hall, suddenly there was Effie. She appeared as astonished to see me as I was to encounter her. And, moreover, she had obviously been out in the rain. We stood facing each other in the dim light. She looked as if she were about to attend an evening party. She wore her hair up and was in a dark green velvet gown I’m sure I had never seen before. It left her shoulders perfectly bare and was cut so low that it emphasised her bosom in the most striking manner. There were raindrops running down her naked shoulders and onto her front and into the top of her bodice. She has become a very handsome girl – tall, black hair, large grey eyes, regular features.
observations: This is the perfect post-Christmas read – if you have a few hours to spare and a comfortable sofa, then draw the curtains, light the fire, prepare some suitable snacks, and dive into this book. Those familiar with the works of Charles Palliser will know what to expect – a Victorian setting, clergymen, Cathedral towns, an unreliable narrator and all kinds of Gothic goings-on. Young Richard Shenstone has come home from Cambridge unexpectedly early – the clue is in the title – and finds his mother and sister have been forced by his father’s death to move to a dark miserable house in a lonely village. They are obviously not thrilled by his arrival, and they’ll be even less pleased when they find out what’s behind it. But someone is planning something rather dramatic. Who can it be? What is going on?
The action takes place between mid-December and mid-January, but there isn’t much seasonal cheer – Christmas is miserable, and the big centrepiece Ball, long looked forward to, ends in tears, and worse. All this is highly enjoyable (there are faint echoes of Lemony Snicket and the Unfortunate Events, so unrelieved are the bad things) and often very funny. Richard’s narration is extremely well-done – he is a horrid callow youth, obsessed with sex, but strangely endearing. But he’s obviously not telling us everything, and it’s clear his judgement can’t be trusted… Meanwhile there are anonymous letters in the village (warning: compared with the rest of the book, these are quite bizarrely unpleasant, containing very strong language) and violent attacks on animals.
There are quite a few loose ends (deliberately) left open, which some readers don’t like. I was more concerned by the fact that – as sometimes happens with this kind of book – you don’t know when the revelations have stopped: is there going to be one last twist? In the very finest books, the ultimate solution is so satisfying that you know you can settle with it. This doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it is still an excellent, sour read.
The picture, Young Girl in a Green Dress, is by John White Alexander and came from the Athenaeum website.