Verdict: Phrenology creeps me out.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Historical/ Gothic Fiction
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing UK / Raven Books, September 20th 2018
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?
I got retroactive FOMO for Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions because everybody seemed to be raving about it, so I knew I needed to read this one. Especially because it focusses on two women, one of them being a prisoner on trial for murder. I love books featuring unapologetically difficult women and Ruth and Dorothea definitely fit the bill.
Dorothea Truelove is a young, unmarried woman, with plenty of suitors who would rather spend her time doing charity work (do not take her to be a kind person though, she really is not). She is most interested in prisons, as she has a strongly developed theory of phrenology that she feels the need to prove (which proves my point about her being maybe not the best person). As such, Ruth seems to be the perfect specimen to research for her: Ruth is sixteen and in prison awaiting her trial that will most likely lead to her execution for murder. The story is told in these dual perspectives, where Ruth is telling her story to Dorothea and the reader is along for the ride to figure out whether Ruth truly killed her mistress with her magic needle work.
For me, this was a really uneven reading experience. While I for the most part really enjoyed Ruth’s perspective and the ambiguity of her story, Dorothea’s part of the book did not work for me (except for the last chapter). Ruth is a compelling character, whose tough and hatred-filled veneer starts to crack the further her story developes. She is still so childlike while being so very broken, it hurt my heart. Dorothea on the other hand with her boring social life and her creepy obsession with phrenology did not quite keep my interest. This might be different for readers from different countries, but for me phrenology itself makes me very uncomfortable. I do not want to read about this and did not realize how obsessive Dorothea would be describing everybody’s skull (there is an in-story reason for this – but it did not change my gut reaction to this).
Furthermore, I found quite a bit of Ruth’s backstory to toe the line to torture porn, which probably says more about me as a reader than about the book to be honest. I would have liked to have these scenes be a little bit more scarcely used.
However, I found the ending to be very satisfying – Laura Purcell pulls together the two storylines in a really wonderful way. I was fine with the men’s storylines to be unresolved because in the end – this is a book about Ruth and Dorothea.
I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing UK / Raven Books in exchange for an honest review.