The Book Collector – Alice Thompson

Summary:

A gothic horror story, set in Edwardian times, with a sub-plot of real life echoing fairytales.

Main Characters:

Violet: The protagonist, she is the second wife of Lord Archie Murray. Much younger than her husband, we are with her as she changes, and becomes less innocent as the book progresses.

Archie: Lord Murray, outwardly the perfect gentleman, but possessed of a dark secret.

Clara: The nanny, brought in to help Violet with her one child.

Minor Characters:

Felix: The very young son of Violet and Archie, he becomes a battleground of sorts between the two women.

Plot:

Young Violet is swept off her feet by Lord Archie Murray, an urbane, wealthy, debonair gentleman, avid collector of books, and recently widowed. Violet is an orphan without no-one really to speak for her, and she believes she has fallen into a real-life fairy tale.

Typical of the times, once she has given birth to Felix she is a stay-at-home mother, and her life is largely controlled and directed by her husband. She has one friend who does not like Archie, and the feeling is mutual, but this aspect and potential tension does not really get developed in the book.

Violet, being Lady of the House (a remote location in Scotland), cannot of course socialise with the servants, so takes to perusing her husband’s book collection. He becomes extremely irate when she discovers a particular book of fairy-tales, locked in a safe, and is forbidden to go near his books. Overtime, though, she does develop the courage to defy this command. She becomes fixated on this book, and why her husband treasures it more than her. She also begins to follow him on his secret nocturnal walks.

Unfortunately for Violet, she begins to suffer episodes, resulting in her being incarcerated in an asylum. There, she meets women from different social classes, the common thread being that their husbands have decided that they are better off in the asylum, and are paying for them to “be cured”.

When she gets out, Clara has been installed by Archie as the nanny, and things begin to slip even further from Violet’s grasp. Clara is extremely competent, and has Felix responding to her as if she were the mother.

A detective calls, to say women have been disappearing from the asylum, and this so distresses Violet that she begins to have disturbing nightmares – or is she somewhat clairvoyant and has seen things that have already happened elsewhere?

Violet grows more of a spine as the story enters its latter stages – the laudanum, the incident with the bookseller, being more assertive with Clara – but this is out of character for her, and I wasn’t convinced by how she changed.

What I Liked:

  • The author evoked the setting, and the time period, quite well.
  • I think she treated Violet’s episodes of mental illness deftly, and without moralising.
  • It was a fast read, the shortness of the chapters helping the pace, as well as the directness of the writing.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • I found the atmosphere was not a dark and gloomy as it should be for a gothic horror. Even the asylum seemed too clean and sanitised.
  • It (the ending) became predictable about halfway through, and I found no appreciable twist or plot development to really retain my interest.
  • I found the fairy tale link to be tenuous. There was no real tale that the story was echoing.

Overall:

I finished the book, mainly as I had two hours to kill while waiting to pick up my daughter. I was disappointed in it, as it had a great premise, and started so well. The author had a lot going on in terms of possibilities (mysterious photo, the controlling husband, the nanny on the make, etc.), but for me didn’t coalesce into a truly entertaining story. This is a real pity, as the author is well-established, and widely published.

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