The death of a local prostitute holds up a mirror to a 17th-century English village.
Despite her universally acknowledged profession, the warm-hearted woman called Dora was anything but despised. “Dora had chosen to bestow herself upon us,” reports the anonymous narrator, daughter of the local midwife: “She gave us grace and generosity and compassion.” Now that she has died after slipping on some snow-covered rocks and falling to the bottom of an icy ravine, however, her legacy to her neighbors is more problematic. Dora’s son Johann, whom everybody calls Long Boy, is piercingly unable to come to terms with his mother’s death. And the loss to Edward, scion of the Great House, where the narrator has been employed as a chambermaid so that she can hear the daily prayers, is especially acute. When Edward’s mother commissions a painter to execute her portrait, Edward secretly arranges with him for a likeness of Dora as well. But Dora is dead, and even her body has gone missing, stolen from her buried coffin. By the time it’s discovered again, the bone house of her corpse will be lighter by the weight of her unborn child. Gradually, gradually, the secrets Dora took to her grave ignite rumors of witchcraft at a time when such rumors are only a step away from accusations. Tobin is especially good at evoking a world in which magic still lives on the fringes of the imagination and at deftly sketching half a dozen stages of death-in-life and life-in-death that suggest a considerably more decorous reworking of Poe, right up to the climactic revelations.
All the characters, however—even the self-revealing narrator—hold themselves too warily at arm’s length from each other, and indeed from themselves, to keep this first novel from succeeding as a psychological study à la Mary Reilly.