In this epistolary novel set in 19th-century England, a brother’s sudden return ushers a darkness into his sister’s home.
Margaret Saville is left alone to run the household while her husband, Philip, is away on business, fecklessly turning to domestic obligations as a way to manage her loneliness. Then her brother, Robin, abruptly appears after a three-year absence, “penniless and beaten” after a harrowing experience at sea. He was the captain of a ship that explored the unforgiving waters of the Arctic. Robin was always a vigorous man, an autodidact known for his insatiable curiosity, but now there’s “something rather shattered about him”—he’s not only physically diminished, but spiritually exhausted as well. He’s also stubbornly laconic and avoids any conversation about whatever experience devastated him. Then a mysterious Russian, Mr. Andropov, a carpenter on Robin’s ship, arrives and explains “the strange time” at sea that shook the captain to his core, a tale hauntingly related by Morrissey (Crowsong for the Stricken, 2017, etc.). Meanwhile, Margaret grapples with demons of her own—her young son, Maurice, dies of illness, a torment that undermines her faith in God. In addition, she hasn’t heard from Philip in weeks, and she fretfully fears the worst, especially as her financial circumstances become increasingly precarious. In a tantalizing subplot, Margaret befriends Mary Shelley, the not-yet-famous author and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who struggles to produce her first book. (This storyline also effectively dates the setting of the novel to about 1815.)
The entirety of Morrissey’s tale is told from the first-person perspective of Margaret, conveyed in a series of letters to Philip. The prose is mercurial, especially the dialogue, which can be beautifully refined and moving: “I find I cannot fault him, for loneliness is a hard master, inflicting his lashes most vigorously during the quietest moments.” But it can also be clumsily overwrought and baroque, as when Mary discusses her husband’s genius: “Words flow from him like rays from the sun, and just as golden, only ceasing for necessary nocturnal rest; and I am not confident he fully comprehends that that is not a quality granted to all mortals in equal measure.” Further, Margaret’s “compulsive writing” can be exasperatingly long-winded and disorderly—even she calls them her “meandering missives.” Too often and at too great length her attention dwells on household matters tangential to the main plot and themes. Yet Morrissey magisterially conjures—first by incremental inches and then in a crashing crescendo—a fearsome atmosphere of something vague but evil. The author builds that cloud of foreboding out of pieces that seem disconnected but finally cohere in a univocal mood: Philip’s worrisome silence, the death of a child, and Margaret’s resentful conclusion that God has abandoned her. In addition, the author cleverly ties that mounting malevolence to Mary’s own writing in a way that genuinely adds to the story.
A fantastically chilling psychodrama intelligently woven into literary history.