A young Victorian woman avoids marriage at all costs—while being haunted by her dead mother.
“You killed me, remember that.” Pohlig’s debut novel opens with a conversation between Iseult Wince and her mother, who died giving birth to her. The midwife had to pull her out, leaving Iseult with a neck scar—which is where she believes her mother’s ghost lives. At 28 years old, she is nearing spinsterhood, and Mr. Wince, her father, desperately wants to marry her off. The idea of marriage terrifies Iseult; she sabotages nearly every setup and keeps a little black book called “The Unsuitables,” where she details her failed suitors. Mr. Wince is ruthlessly cruel to his daughter. His emotional abuse is unending to the point that even Iseult hopes he will hit her: “She wished he would, so their mutual hatred could at least be tangible instead of just another ghost in the house.” Luckily, she has Mrs. Pennington, her housekeeper and surrogate mother, who provides some of the kindness and emotional nurturing Iseult has been deprived of. Eventually, Mr. Wince finds a willing admirer in Jacob—a kind fellow outcast with a unique condition: His skin is silver. The forced engagement and impending wedding sends Iseult into further free fall. Her mother’s voice gets stronger and more cruel. Whether it’s with sewing scissors or pins, Iseult’s way of coping with her mother’s voice is self-harm and mutilation. Unfortunately, the novel is bloody and graphic in a way that sometimes feels gratuitous. Though there are moments of humor and levity, they are rare. Once such moment is when Iseult wonders what may be expected of her after marriage: “She had received the usual sex education of a moderately privileged Victorian woman—that is to say, none.” Despite a pitch-perfect final scene, the strange, grotesque novel has too much narrative fluff.
Bloody and bizarre.