My own interest as a writer in the spiritualist world of the Victorian and Edwardian eras drew me to this novel, but if you are looking for a good historical novel with plenty of authentic detail then there is much to appeal here. Middle-aged sisters Judy and Maggie Cloak have inherited a shop in the windswept, weather-beaten village of Blackheath on the outskirts of east London, but it is doing badly in its current incarnation as a sweetshop and the Cloak sisters are getting desperate. Judy has ambitions to escape both literally and metaphorically through a gothic novel she is writing, while Maggie seeks solace in drink from her sense of abandonment as a daughter and a prospective wife. Their lives change with the arrival of the rather mysterious Mrs Walters, a woman of some spiritual ability, who soon helps the sisters transform the shop into a focal point for many contrasting things: gossip, hope, faith, belief, mystery, and all the trappings of the occult. But the initial success of tea leaf reading is not enough for Maggie, Judy or Mrs Walters, and the story explores how the paths of each woman diverge as they seek their own resolutions with the past and the future. The novel is also intercut with long extracts from Judy’s novel, through which she explores certain aspects of her own reality and the society to which she imagines belonging.
The other main character in this book is the village of Blackheath, and Williams notes at the end of the book that he wanted to do justice to the community and its history as part of his aim in writing the novel. He captures very effectively the bleakness of the heath as it must have been in the Victorian era, and with a subplot around the murder of two girls, he infuses a certain chill in the already atmospheric spiritualist action. He has also done great justice to what must have been substantial research of spiritualism in the Victorian era. In the scenes where the sisters and Mrs Walters are reading tea leaves and the glass ball, and later the seances themselves, he has drawn very authentically on reports of the time, both of the fake and the genuine, and that level of accuracy will please readers of historical fiction and those interested in spiritualism.
It’s interesting too that he has essentially focussed on three middle-aged women, and he explores the social confinement these women must have felt in being unmarried while also seeking to be independent. Each woman is seeking something different as a consequence, and while their stories are interesting I wasn’t always as convinced by the historical authenticity of their actions and particularly some of their dialogue. Without giving too much away about how the story develops, some more spiritually-inclined readers might think it a shame that the most talented character spiritually was also the least attractive personality. It also might be seen by some readers as not doing much for a feminist agenda: the social emancipation and independence each of these women is seeking is in a way undermined by the lengths they go to to achieve what they want, and in some ways none of the women comes out of it very well. I was also a bit disappointed by the way Mrs Walters’ storyline resolved itself and not entirely satisfied with what happens to Maggie. But to discuss that at any length would be to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book.
As in my own spiritualist novels (search for Evie Woolmore), there is some discussion about the science vs religious faith vs spirituality conundrum, and this appears in the last part of the book only. It would have been interesting to do more with this much earlier in Maggie’s arguments with Father Legge, although it makes a very fitting climax dramatically in other respects. The book – though quite long – is generally well-paced, although I personally didn’t engage as much with the extracts of Judy’s novel. I think there could have been fewer of them and shorter ones too, without detracting from the part they played in reflecting some of the real-life action and the issues that arise for Judy as a consequence of writing the book.
This is a historically detailed novel, which I’m sure residents and those familiar with Blackheath will much enjoy for its local portrait, and which will provide a good escape on a wintry evening or two.