Author: Katherine Webb
Orion RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
I seem to go through mini-phases when I read … lately there’s been a run of gothic-style fiction – mysterious secrets, legacies, houses and a heroine determined to uncover the truth. I love books like this, so The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb pulled me in right from the blurb. Webb is the author of The Legacy and The Unseen, neither of which I have read but will be adding to my to-read pile now. The Misbegotten is a long book and takes time to reveal its secrets, but it’s well worth settling down with. Like many books of this type, it’s told with dual time periods and from a number of different voices, however, the time difference is little more than a decade, so the secrets are still relatively fresh.
Set in Bath in the early 1800’s, the novel opens with newly married Rachel Crofton starting life as the wife of a charming self-made merchant. For her, the marriage is more about a fresh start rather than love; Rachel hopes that love will grow over time, but soon finds that her husband, Richard Weekes, is secretive, manipulative and abusive. Her new life is far from what she hoped it would be back in the town of her childhood. Richard wants her to make social connections for him, so when she is invited to become the companion of the reclusive Jonathan Alleyn, Richard encourages the arrangement. It seems like a welcome relief for Rachel, but this too, turns sour when it emerges that Rachel strongly resembles Jonathan’s childhood sweetheart, Alice, who disappeared 12 years earlier.
Jonathan is not the only one who sees the resemblance. A family servant, Starling, is shocked when she first sees Rachel. Starling loved Alice like a sister and she’s always been convinced that Jonathan had something to do with Alice’s disappearance. She sees Rachel’s arrival as an opportunity to finally find out what happened to Alice. Did she run away? Was there someone else? Or did something altogether darker occur? Others want only to forget, and will go to extreme lengths to do so. Jonathan’s erratic and sometimes violent behaviour, combined with Starling’s obsessive need to find the truth, draws Rachel into the mystery and the two women band together to seek answers. Their pairing is unusual – two women separated by social standing but united in loss (both have no parents), and it begins on shaky ground, but somehow it works.
Secrets behind closed doors, cover-ups, rocky romance and the clashes of different societal classes … all elements I adore in fiction. The Misbegotten is a solid piece of work and conveys the gloomy atmosphere of gothic-style fiction well, complete with enveloping fogs, grey skies and poverty-struck streets. Jonathan is appropriately brooding and damaged, bringing out determination and an “I’ll sort this out” attitude from Rachel. Richard is weak and deceitful and despite the bonds of marriage that tie him to Rachel, the reader soon joins Rachel in hoping for those bonds to be released. Other characters, such as Mrs Alleyn (Jonathan’s mother) and her abusive father (Alice’s benefactor), add to the atmosphere of suspicion in which secrets build upon secrets. It’s beautifully constructed and detailed and as the story grew on me I found myself caring about the characters more and more. Even Starling, who I really didn’t identify with initially, grew on me as the novel evolved. One point though – although the house on the front cover suggests that the Alleyn manor will be a character in its own right, like Manderley in Du Maurier’s Rebecca or the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre, it wasn’t really. I didn’t have that feeling of the house as an all-pervading influence.
Women’s roles, societal constraints and the impact of war (the scenes detailing Jonathan’s memories were among the most riveting) were among the themes touched upon, in addition to the mystery of Alice’s disappearance. These themes were fused into the story with finesse, allowing modern readers to consider how far (or not) we’ve come, while at the same time enjoying a great story. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading back copies of Webb’s work … as well as books yet to come.
Available from good bookstores and Hachette. This copy was courtesy of Hachette.
Bookish treat: Chocolate – dark with a hint of sea salt.