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by Marty Ambrose
Severn House, June 2022
192 pages
ISBN: 1448308577

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Almost everyone has heard the story about Mary Shelley's epiphany that led to her composition of FRANKENSTEIN. It was the summer of 1816, she was partying with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, vampire-novelist John William Polidori, ultimate celebrity poet Lord Byron, and his lover, her stepsister, Jane "Claire" Clairmont. It rained, apocalyptically. She had a nightmare. In it, she found her Creature, and her creativity. A less well-known story places Frankenstein's origin three years earlier, when a seventeen-year-old Mary lost her infant daughter--and dreamed that she had been able to bring her back to life. That second dream, documented in her own writing, must have been the desperate fantasy of countless nineteenth-century mothers who lived in the era before modern medicine and lost their children to infant mortality. Indeed, it might be a modern nightmare, too. In the United States, maternal mortality is double the frequency it is in any other industrialized nation, and the infant mortality rate, considerably higher than that of Canada and several other high-income countries, is inflated by poverty's general impact on public health.

Marty Ambrose's historical mystery novel FOREVER PAST, the third of her Claire Clairmont mystery series, powerfully animates the desperate maternal hope that a deceased infant might have a chance to grow up. For the past three books, an elderly Claire, living in 1870s Italy with her niece Paula and her niece's young daughter, suffers a strange robbery and determines that her daughter Allegra, Byron's daughter as well, who back in 1822 she had been told had died in a convent school, might still be alive. Byron might have hidden Allegra somewhere and this news from Claire. Why? And if it's true, where is Allegra now? A plucky, acerbic grandmotherly type, Claire decides to find out.

As the series progressed, it has grown on me. Claire has become more Claire-like: an impetuous risk-taker and flouter of convention; an intelligent woman in an era with no use for that; a relic of the Romantic male poets' toxic circle who sometimes exploits that role and sometimes resents it. An adventuress who has made many cities, cultures, and language communities her home--and of course, the woman who lived the same kind of maternal trauma as Mary Shelley did without getting the chance to articulate it in print, in part because her only child was illegitimate and the daughter of the notorious Byron.

In FOREVER PAST, the past comes back to haunt Claire forever, as she learns that Byron may have hidden their daughter because of his messy political commitments in the early days of Italy's long struggle for independence and unification. A trio of Gothic villains emerge, but they're entirely politically plausible in this context. Claire struggles with her ambivalent feelings for the Byron hanger-on Edward John Trelawney, a character so melodramatic Mary Shelley once said he was pirate-like. They meet Teresa Giuccioli, Countess of Gamba, Byron's eccentric former mistress and an Italian revolutionary in her own right, and she helps them in their quest. Finally, Claire must confront a new problem: should she meet her long-lost daughter, how will she react?

Ambrose does not solve that mystery in FOREVER PAST. The novel ends with a spectacular cliffhanger which, like the final line of the second volume of a triple-decker novel, makes the reader want the next installment immediately. FOREVER PAST is a giant tour-de-force, and there is no Grand Tourist more forceful than Ambrose's Claire Clairmont.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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