A symphony of psychological complexity and misdirection in four increasingly tricky movements displays the varied wares of the gifted Phillips (The Egyptologist, 2004, etc.).
In a brooding family drama set in turn-of-the-century London (presumably the turn from the 19th to the 20th), former shopgirl Constance Barton begins to withdraw from her husband, Joseph (a medical researcher who had formerly served with the British Army), and into protective intimacy with their bewitching four-year-old daughter Angelica, whose birth had been preceded by several miscarriages. Fearful of enduring another failed pregnancy, Constance forsakes her husband’s bed, pleading that the sensitive Angelica needs her constantly. And, appalled by evidence of the “cruelty” of Joseph’s researches (i.e., mutilation and vivisection of animals), repelled by his evident masculine needs, Constance persuades herself that she sees proof of both malign ghostly presences invading their home and the more-than-fatherly interest shown toward Angelica by Joseph (born Bartone, hence of hot-blooded ancestry). Is Constance mad, or does she alone sense the presence of unspeakable evil? Phillips juggles possibilities almost as adroitly as did Henry James in this novel’s likely inspiration, The Turn of the Screw—and he ups the ante in successive narratives focused on the duplicitous spiritualist (“Anne Montague”) engaged by Constance, who quickly falls under this formidable older woman’s not-entirely-professional influence; “Joseph Barton” himself, who gradually emerges as rather less a villain than an ingenuous victim; and finally “Angelica,” years after the novel’s major events, when she has learned—but still does not fully understand—the personal histories that set her formerly loving parents at incompatible odds. A further mystery is found in the identity of the narrator, neatly revealed late in the story (though less of a surprise than Phillips perhaps intends). Elegant writing abounds, as do probing characterizations and flashes of wit (the two nicely conjoined in the figure of self-important, gourmandizing consulting psychologist Doctor Miles).
An impressive step forward for the versatile Phillips, who continues to engage, surprise and entertain.