This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warning: This novel contains scenes of sexual and emotional abuse, and includes descriptions of violent deaths.
Bouysse’s searing novel brings nineteenth century France to life in chilling detail. The narrative voice shifts throughout, but it is Gabriel, the village priest, who bookends the novel. It opens with a mysterious confession requesting he remove a series of diaries from the body of a woman at the asylum, the contents of the which will haunt him for the rest of his days. It soon becomes clear why, as a bitter tale of abuse, intrigue, and deception unfolds.
Fourteen year old Rose is sold to a blacksmith by her father, desperately trying to save the family farm. The castle in which the blacksmith lives with his mother is cold and unwelcoming, reflecting the souls of its inhabitants. Rose quickly realises that no matter how well she performs her tasks the old woman will always find something to complain about. She accepts her new position with quiet resolve, but the true evil of her owners will soon reveal itself, making her life unbearable. There is some slight relief in the presence of Edmond, a kindly employee who warns her off staying, but without giving full reason why. Her affection for him is soon tainted with the disappointment that he didn’t do more to protect her.
There is one more inhabitant - the wife of the blacksmith, confined to her bedroom due to ill health, and never seen outside it. The doctor visits regularly, and Rose becomes curious about what’s wrong with her. The wife locked away is not an uncommon presence in either nineteenth century novels or modern books set during the period. The visits by the doctor will make those familiar with such novels as The Crimson Petal and the White distinctly uncomfortable, but the truth, when it is revealed, is far darker than anything I had imagined.
The various threads of the story are constructed to devastating effect. At times we see the same events through different eyes with heartbreaking results. Rose, having been sold without her knowledge or consent, can only imagine the thought process of her family, completely blind to the consequences caused by the foolish actions of a desperate man. At many moments you wish the truth could be communicated between the unhappy inhabitants, but the despicable villains ensure this is never possible.
The blacksmith and his mother are truly abhorrent, their cruelty seemingly knowing no bounds. Often incredibly difficult to read, the sections revealing their unforgivable actions will have you boiling with anger. They are carefully realised villains that inspire no sympathy. They manipulate and abuse, and the image of Rose trapped with them in a forbidding castle where no-one will hear her screams is truly bone chilling.
The writing is confident and lyrical, creating a vivid, believable world that will take hold of your heart and not let go. The clever little details littered throughout drop hints of the full picture, which will only become clear after a series of twists and revelations that subvert many assumptions made from the off. Bouysse successfully draws you in to a dark and dangerous world with characters that will inspire strong emotions. At many times a difficult read, it is nonetheless almost impossible to put down.