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The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
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really liked it
bookshelves: contemporary-fiction, gothic-and-supernatural, netgalley


Following the folklore-soaked mystery “The Hidden People”, Alison Littlewood returns to the Victorian era with her latest book, “The Crow Garden”. The novel’s narrator is Nathaniel Kerner, a young “alienist” or “mad-doctor”, who has found a placing as under-physician at Crakethorne Manor, a remote asylum in desolate, rural Yorkshire. The son of a doctor, Kerner has his demons to exorcise – he still feels guilty about having, when still a boy, indirectly encouraged his father’s suicide. This gives him the incentive to prove himself as a “progressive” physician, a proponent of a more humane approach to the treatment of psychological problems. The asylum director, Doctor Chettle, is not too keen about Kerner’s methods, preferring his own phrenological theories and experiments with electric shock treatments. Yet, he gives Kerner a free hand with their latest patient, the “hysterical” Mrs Victoria Harleston, who has been admitted at the behest of her husband. Harleston claims that she is haunted by the ghost of her husband’s son, and that she has the gift of conversing with the dead. After initial sessions with the patient leave little effect, Kerner invites a “mesmerist” in the hope of curing Harleston. The session, however, has unexpected consequences, leaving Kerner in doubt as to whether Harleston is really mad or whether there might be some truth in her allegations and imaginings.

The novel shifts between the mists of Yorkshire and the thick, industrial fog of London; between the oppressive ambience of the mental asylum and the creepy goings-on of the City’s “spiritualist” circles. These settings are well researched and, apart from building a chilling atmosphere, they also give us an authentic snapshot of 19th Century life. The Victorian era however does not merely provide a backdrop to the plot. On the contrary, I felt that the novel is itself a tribute to the popular novels of the time, particularly those of a Gothic, supernatural bent. The narrative voice and dialogue are perfectly pitched – they could have come out of Dickens or, better still, Wilkie Collins. There are also plenty of Gothic tropes – ghostly manifestations, noctural perambulations in grimy streets, madness, obsession and (with more than a nod to “The Woman in White”) the wife placed in an asylum against her will. And as with the best supernatural fiction, there is that constant niggling doubt as to whether the allegedly otherworldly manifestations are all a product of the mind.

Some of Wilkie Collins’s works had a radical (for their time), proto-feminist message. I feel that Littlewood cannily taps into this vein, giving her Victorian novel a more contemporary flavour and going beyond mere pastiche. Her subject-matter and approach – making the 19th Century relevant and appealing to contemporary readers – reminded me of Sarah Waters’s brilliant early novels “Fingersmith” and “Affinity”. “The Crow Garden” certainly deserves to share a shelf with them.
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Reading Progress

August 23, 2017 – Shelved
August 23, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
September 10, 2017 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
September 10, 2017 – Shelved as: gothic-and-supernatural
September 10, 2017 –
September 11, 2017 – Started Reading
September 12, 2017 –
September 15, 2017 –
September 16, 2017 –
September 21, 2017 – Finished Reading
June 1, 2018 – Shelved as: netgalley

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