Ghosts, echoes, and the life force of London connect two characters—a Victorian investigator approaching a personal crisis and a modern-day academic forced into early retirement who's remaking herself, single and free.
The links between two strangers, Joseph in the 19th century and Madeleine in the 21st, are many and varied, some as light as a fingertip on skin, others composed of bricks and mortar. Joseph, a former police clerk who's now collecting material for Harry Mayhew, a real-life chronicler of the Victorian poor, lives a precarious existence, trying to support his wife and four children. His new job is leading him into unusual company, notably that of Mrs. Dulcimer, a black woman who lets rooms to prostitutes. Madeleine walks along the same streets, even moves into what had been Mrs. Dulcimer’s house on Apricot Place, more than a century later. She reads Mayhew, mixes with her neighbors in the South London suburb of Walworth, and unknowingly connects with spirits of the past via scraps like an earring, shards of bone dug from the earth, a turquoise pot. Roberts (Ignorance, 2012, etc.), a long-practiced British novelist, poet, and memoirist, has a unique, sensuous, and impressionistic voice: “Soft grass shone on the steep banks they walked between, over dry ruts, the mud whitened by the sun, and the scent of manure, warm earth, rich as yeast.” In this novel, her 14th, her subject is in part the texture of London, its markets, pubs, alleyways, and teeming populace. Past and present bleed into each other through themes of writing, food, and sex, and while in conventional ghost stories the spirits tend to move in one direction only, here something stranger and more resonant occurs.
Roberts’ intense technique can sometimes overwhelm her storytelling, but this evocative tale of place, survival, and contact has a lingering impact.