Last weekend I went to a second hand bookstore to sell some of the books I’ve had for a long time. They had been exiled to a box for many years, for lack of space (and interest, I admit, though not all) – their pages turning brown and spotty with humidity – as newer or more desirable copies have been slowly filling my two bookcases. Unless I win the lottery and buy a villa with a capacious library, I must, from time to time, exchange the old for the new.
I went there with a list of books I wanted to read, by Robert McCammon, James Herbert and Shirley Jackson, but was unable to find them. What I got was something I hadn’t been looking for, and as it turned out, a very nice surprise.
The name of the book and its author are new to me, but the blurb at the back and the first few pages that I read made me fall for it on the spot. I spent two days reading it, in a kind of half-awake state that only a good book can give, the kind where you wish time could stop until you got to the end.
Described as a “Gothic romance”, it begins with the story of Edward Fraser who, fearing his death is near, is writing to his son, Stephen. He has a tragic tale to write, that of Stephen’s mother and of his dear friend Stephen Chapman, after whom his son is named. Told mostly from his perspective, it is a tale fraught with tragedy and poisoned by evilness. In true Victorian style, it has an array of characters ranging from fallen women and brutal, vicious men, to artists, doctors and university students; ambitions are shattered, lives destroyed by sickness and revenge, and above all, a great love story.
Edward and Stephen were students at Oxford in 1887 when they met and formed a lasting friendship that was unbroken even in death. They made an interesting pair, a Sherlock meets Watson type of camaraderie founded on common interests such as debating various topics – Edward was studying to be a clergyman or possibly a professor, while Stephen was an exceptional medical student dedicated to the field of obstetrics. When Stephen was offered the opportunity to work at a shelter for reforming fallen women, he was able to bring his passion for his work to the aid of those unfortunate and shunned by society.
That is how he met Diana, a young woman whose beauty had shattered lives and left behind nothing but sorrow. Edward knew about Diana’s disreputable past and warned his friend, but Stephen was too in love to care. But all was not well when the lies Diana had told in the past came back to haunt her present, and the truth became difficult to see behind their tangled web. Was Diana the unscrupulous woman Edward thought her to be, a femme-fatale bent on ensnaring the young and unsuspecting for a respectable place in society, or was there something more to the story?
The book is divided into five parts, with each part dedicated to a character, four men and a woman, their stories connected. Edward is the main narrator, but Stephen and Diana get to tell their own version as well in the form of letters, which gives the whole story an intimate feeling. The language is true to the period, the turns and flourishes making for a perfect immersion in the Victorian era.
I liked this book very much. There are no ghosts here but there’s a dungeon, a half-mad villain, death, and star-crossed lovers. The pace is quick, the mysteries abound, and the end, tragic. I liked the characters, the two friends most of all, and admired Stephen for his strength and for never giving up on his friend. He made his own mistakes along the way but tried to atone for them as best he could. I also liked the references to mythology in the explanation of how the young woman came to be named Diana (not her real name). If you’re a fan of novels set in Victorian times, this is a great choice.
Although I had many other books lined up for R.I.P IX, this goes to show, and not for the first time either, that plans can change out of the blue. The Unpierced Heart fits in perfectly with the requirements for this reading challenge – mystery, thriller, gothic.
Some of my favorite passages:
“Chapman confessed to me once that he believed in neither salvation nor damnation, unless it was upon this earth, in our hearts; in this life. Once, I thought this meant he could not be saved. I am no longer that blind an unyielding man – but even when I was, I should gladly have swapped places with him. I imagined that my spotless soul would descend and his rise, and perhaps, when we passed, there would be a moment of recognition; no more. And now I wonder whether he was not right, after all; for I can imagine no damnation more absolute and no Hell bleaker than a world without love in it.”
“It is through you that my life has gained purpose and sweetness. These are words fathers do not say to their sons, nor husbands to their wives, yet they should be said, and often; for love is the pearl beyond price, the divine gift, which raises us above our weak and imperfect selves and burns with a hard, astonishing flame against death’s darkness. The grave is cold and silent enough, and soon enough in coming. We ought not to be cold and silent too.”
My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August-September, 2014