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by Joanne Harris
Black Swan, October 2004
400 pages
ISBN: 0552771783

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

What a story-teller is Joanne Harris! The famed author of CHOCOLAT resurrects (appropriately) a Gothic tale originally released in 1994. In a foreword, the author explains just why she thought to revive the cooling body of the old manuscript, tweaking it here and there for a new audience, one accustomed to more joyous fare from this writer.

The narrative is told in a series of first person chapters ranging from that of Henry Paul Chester, through his child bride Effie Chester, Effie's seducer Moses Harper and Fanny Miller, madam and mother of the dead Marta, the darker sister to Effie's pale spiritual sibling.

Artist Henry Chester explains how he happens upon the ten-year-old Effie and becomes obsessed with her. He discards all his previous models and concentrates on the blonde waif, transforming her into all kinds of figures from a beggar maid to the sleeping beauty. Inevitably, he decides he must marry her so the teenaged model becomes his bride, much to the disapproval of her aunt, the only character in the book, apart from the housekeeper, who seems to have the girl's welfare at heart.

While in church, Effie discovers she can dissociate her mind from her body, a very useful talent. She is kept sedated on laudanum by Chester, especially after the death of their child. The drug seems to make it easier for Effie to escape the bonds of her body and in the disembodied state she hears a woman calling out the name 'Marta'.

Moses Harper, another artist, glimpses the beautiful bride of Chester, whom he despises both for his art and his character, and makes up his mind to seduce Effie. The innocent Effie, whose burgeoning passion had been stifled by Chester who saw it as something unclean, turns guilelessly to Moses and believes he loves her and will marry her when she is released from the loveless union with Chester.

Fanny Miller meets Effie when Harper takes the girl to a fair. There, disguised as a gypsy, Fanny is able to see Effie's abilities and is also able to capture once more the spirit of her dead daughter Marta -- the child who had been murdered when she was ten years old. Fanny uses the Tarot and the voice of her daughter to discover the identity of the murderer and plots, together with Marta, Effie and Harper, how to avenge the killing.

Chester, despite being the apparent epitome of strict Victorian morality, has some secrets of his own. The son of a strait-laced minister and a wealthy, beautiful woman, Henry, at the age of 12, developed a less than filial passion for his mother. He is horrified at the evil he perceives in himself and when he takes Effie under his protection he attempts to see her brought up without any stain of similar sinful passions. Imagine, then, the horror of his wedding night to discover Effie's perfectly natural carnal appetites.

The tale is redolent of the dark, from the black winter afternoons through the ebony darkness of a cemetery vault and the dark secrets of the characters. The writing is gloriously evocative and the narrative eerily goosebump-raising. If the reader would like something to consume on a dark night in an empty, creaking house (perhaps while consuming dark chocolate) this is the best choice that could be made!

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, August 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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