It becomes necessary for Hester Why to take advantage of a well-timed employment opportunity when it presents itself to her. Arriving at remote Morvoren House to take the position of nurse and ladies maid, Hester is somewhat horrified to learn that her new charge is a partially paralysed elderly woman who is almost entirely mute. It may be a lovely house but the location is not, and the staff seem frankly odd to Hester, who once served in another fine house before being forced to flee in shame. Hester was once Esther, and the re-invention of Hester’s past means that she can never be entirely comfortable in her new position. What might be revealed from a casual comment, a momentary lapse in her own attention?
Miss Pinecroft has lived in Morvoren House since childhood, under the dubious care of a live-in maid who, in Hester’s opinion, has filled the heads of all in the house with all sorts of nonsense. Local lore is strong with legends of fairy folk who must be appeased at all costs, chance they take their revenge by stealing the souls of maidens and children. A room full of bone china (have you ever given any thoughts as to why it is called that precisely – perhaps its best that you don’t) is the focal point of the house, and Miss Pinecroft is convinced she must keep watch of the collection – at all times.
Forty years earlier, the horror of consumption takes almost everything away from Louise Pinecroft that she holds dear. Louise’s father was unable to save his son and wife from the disease, and the knowledge of this failing has driven Dr Pinecroft to make finding a cure his life’s mission. Dr Pinecroft is convinced that over nurturing the afflicted was part of the problem, and that the moist sea air of the Cornish coast will be instrumental in treating a handful of men assigned to his care from a local prison.
Gothic mysteries need to tick a lot of boxes for anyone who has read in this genre before. It is incredibly easy for ‘tone’ to be lost and for modern sensibilities to slip in and pollute a Victorian narrative. Think ‘iron hand in a velvet glove’ when you are reading gothics as they can be incredibly dark and sinister in intent, as pretty as they may appear on the surface.
English author Laura Purcell’s first book, The Silent Companions, was the Victorian gothic injection that crime and mystery readers never knew was needed before its release back in 2018. Bone China shows the same grace and authenticity, never steering into the stormy waters of melodrama that can often create something more garish than subtle in a genre that requires considerable descriptive restraint. Bone China rachets up the tension by underplaying rather than overplaying what it reveals about its characters.
The real horror of this book is not the mysterious happenings occurring inside the house, but rather the amount of misinformation and quackery being practiced on the male sufferers of ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis) who are patients in the caves near the house. Purcell presents her characters sympathetically but does present their choices in such a way that the reader is left to lay their judgements where they best see fit.
Bone China is a carefully constructed work that is extremely effective at creating a close trapped atmosphere, wrapping the intrigue up tightly in the layers of restraint and civility that were practiced at that time. Bone China does not deviate too far with its sub plots, and it is felt that more could have been explored with the supernatural aspects of the china and its historical production. The notion that very real ills could be overturned by fanciful beliefs and the observation of long held customs is such an incredibly tragic aspect of Bone China. Without disclosing the ending, on reflection, the conclusion is that it could not have gone any other way. Set in an era known for what is not said, rather than what is said, Bone China delivers an oppressive and unsettling tale of isolation and re-invention in a time determined to outrun its legacy of disease.
For more of Andy Thompson’s book reviews, check out AustCrimeFiction
Australian Crime Fiction began in 2006 to provide a database of crime authors and books from Australasia in the crime genre. Now featuring book reviews, the site is dedicated to crime fiction and thrillers, with a heavy emphasis on Australian and New Zealand content.