Arsenault (What Strange Creatures, 2014, etc.) immerses readers in the grisly past of a New England town as one modern-day woman is caught in the grip of her home’s history.
In 2014, high school history teacher and new mom Abby Bernacki worries over “odd” happenings in her 19th-century house, such as her baby daughter's mysterious bruise. After consulting with a past owner, Abby obtains a historic resident’s journal and befriends a local archivist, who introduces her to a trove of puzzling artifacts. In 1878, another new mother who lived in the house, Frances Barnett, was ordered to a month’s “rest” in bed to cure her nervous condition. Once she’s out of bed, Frances fakes enthusiasm for domestic tasks while concealing from her husband her obsession with the trial of a gruesome murderer. The historic parts of the novel draw on the tale of a real-life 1879 murder and trial, even including several real New York Times articles that covered the story. Readers will squirm at the courtroom scenes involving a removed and preserved face and experiments with arsenic and donated stomachs. In another bit of historical accuracy, Frances toils in the Northampton Lunatic Hospital in Massachusetts, which at the time turned a profit on the work of its residents. The novel consists of three threads: Abby's 2014 perspective, where she reads notes Frances kept in a cooking journal in 1878; Frances' mental-hospital monologue to her visiting brother in 1885; and the 1998 death of a college student in Abby’s dorm. The college thread is minimally developed and seems incidental, until it ties in as the foundation of an emotionally satisfying ending. Abby’s and Frances’ mirrored stories are the stars of the show; despite their very different circumstances, both women are humbled by the pressures of new motherhood before they find empowerment in the hunt for justice.
A striking reminder that today's domesticity is not too far removed from that of the 19th century.