I came across a notice of The Book Collector by Alice Thompson (Salt, £8.99) in the Observer. I think it had a review in the Guardian as well but not having read the book, I avoided the review. However, I was suitably intrigued.
The idea of the retelling of Bluebeard was a delight as I love Angela Carter’s retelling but the Thompson was ever so unexpected. Having just been on a fairy tale jag, this book was like cat nip and definitely an author whom I am going to have read more of now.
Violet meets, and marries quickly, Archie, a book collector. After having a child, she finds herself increasingly isolated. Leafing through her husband’s library, she comes across a safe with a book of fairy tales inside. She is interned in an asylum to “help” her overcome her illness and learns of the disappearance of young women, some of whom she has met. Her return to the house is not a fortunate one as the icy Clara has moved in as a governess and their lives unravel in startling ways.
In just under 160 pages, Thompson delights us with a feminist retelling of Bluebeard and other tales whilst mixing in the notion of women’s mental health, echoing Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Mrs Rochester. Violet’s plight deftly makes us consider the insanity that drives her husband in counter point to her own perceived issues.
She manages to be gleeful and to bring her own voice into the Gothic rather than go through the motions with the machinery. The ghost story was temporarily back in vogue this year as several writers published new ghost stories (though Susan Hill has been doing this for a few years anyhow…) and this was hailed as come back for the Gothic. Arguably the Gothic never really goes away as it is rarely in full fashion but nips the heels and merrily guides in its maddening ways.
The unravelling updates the novel and reminded me a little of Michelle Lovric.
This is my first Alice Thompson book and I am really looking forward to reading more next year.