The Corset by Laura Purcell

Looking for a spooky read, filled with murder and madness? This book is for you …

There is absolutely nothing like discover an author you haven’t heard of before and falling in love with their writing style and story telling. That is exactly how I felt when I read The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, and when I saw she had a new book coming out I just knew I had to read it.

This novel is another historical fiction read (I know, do I actually read anything else?) set in Victorian Britain which, if you’ve noticed anything about my reading habits, is ‘my jam’. This read follows two women, both from very different backgrounds, who are thrown together by a morbid interest.

In a typical Bronwen way, I have tried to write a synopsis to this book at least four times and have had to delete it every time because I’m scared I’m giving away spoilers. Therefore, I’m going to stop trying and turn to trusty Goodreads to help me out before I gush about this read:

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

When I had just finished this read and was busy trying to convince everyone and their nan to read it, I kept finding myself using the same desciption over and over again. For me, this novel is the perfect mixture of Atwood’s Alias Grace and Waters’ Affinity. The novel shares many of the characteristics with these two, with the female focus, theme of imprisonment, and the uncertainity of truth. One of the things that made this novel so addictive for me was that you are never entirely sure who to believe. For example, Ruth presents herself as this evil murder, yet all evidence contradicts this. Everything within this novel is not quite what it seems and despite the fact you are reading to find answers, they always feel slightly out of reach. What I absolutely adored about this book is that I didn’t feel ‘safe’ as a reader – by that I mean I feel as though I was continually being manipulated whilst I read the book. And that is fantastic. It instantly made the characters and the plot more dark and mysterious.

What I didn’t quite prepare myself for when reading this book was how gruesome it was going to be. Obviously, this was quite silly on my behalf considering that it was a book about murder, but still! There are two scenes in particular, and I won’t spoil them, but definitely made me feel a little queasy. However, what I like is that they feel like they are placed there purposefully. They haven’t just been plonked there to freak the reader out, but act to add to the characterisation of the characters. And while I understand that these scenes are vital, it felt just as vital that I warn the people I am trying to encourage to read it.

As main characters go, Ruth Butterham is now one of my favourites. As you read the story, you can’t help but feel for her and her struggles, and share in her anger at the way she was treated. I even found myself getting angry at Dorothea at moments, when she attempts to understand Ruth and ultimately use her, all in defence of Ruth. But even though I felt sorry for her and the need to defend her, I was never entirely sure if I felt that way because she had decided I was going to feel that way, whether she had manipulated the way I had read her so that I could only see her as a victim, and that just made me appreciate her more.

So, why should you read this book? Well, firstly, as it is Halloween this month, this is the perfect time you dive into a spooky and sinister read. Secondly, the world Purcell has recreated is so complex and intricate that you can’t help but lose yourself in it. And finally, many of the discussions that occur with the book, especially towards ideas of gender, are such a reflection of our own society that they are too important to miss. Also, it is just a ruddy great read.

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