Review: The Somnambulist by Essie Fox (Orion)

The Somnambulist

Just after I finished reading The Somnambulist I was lucky enough for Essie Fox take part on The Readers podcast. Having Essie on the podcast was the reason I finally took The Somnambulist out of the TBR but it wasn’t the reason why I fist noticed it, neither was its inclusion in this year’s TV Book Club though I can’t pin down when I came across it but I have a copy since the middle of last year.

Why the background? This is going to a positive review (aren’t they 99/100 anyway?) but I wanted to say as lovely as a guest Essie was the book is entirely enchanting on it’s own. And I really was enchanted. I don’t think I’ve ever read what you’d call a ‘sensationalist’ novel, which I’m told by Simon these books are called. Though I do like Sherlock Holmes and stories that borrow that historical background and twist it like Steampunk does. Though I do usually like them with a twist say in the form of a ghost story.

The Somnambulist isn’t an entirely ‘straight’ novel but any unexplained elements are more due to a reflection of the sentiments of the time rather than an intention of the author to add any mystical uncertainties.

We follow Phoebe Turner as she breaks out of the cotton wool that her mother has placed around her and discovers a world of guilt and deception. Her exposure starts with something small, a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall but a couple of chance encounters will affect her relationship with her mother, Maud and her Aunt Cissy and the secrets they hide.

There are some books that hold an x-factor. Something that you can’t quite place your finger on. It doesn’t matter they aren’t perfect as they will captivate you with their story and the carry you along on a wave. And that’s how I’d describe The Somnambulist.

I was captivated with Phoebe; there was something in her innocence and the way that the people around her manipulated her that I felt compelled to keep reading in order to find out in the end what the fates (and Essie Fox) had in store for her.

It wasn’t a pleasure in her pain, it was a sense of background hope that everything was going to was be alright and I wanted to be right. Now this is where it gets tricky. It’s such a close knit tale that’s set up in such a way that saying too much with start pre-empt events.

And as I’ve said it’s the fact that Phoebe is starved of knowledge that makes it an absorbing read. Though what I can say is that Essie Fox has placed on her stage vibrant and  fitting (if not always totally realistic) characters that act out this gothic tale of woe.

It sounds cruel describing them as actors but they larger than life that it would be doing the book a disservice to describe it as realistic. And it’s more fun this way. Being larger than life the characters can get away with behaviour that would have felt out of place if Essie Fox had muted and mellowed their personalities.

This is proper escapist fiction. It’s a place and a world that is familiar though told in a contemporary way with real emotions and a main character you feel for. You also get distinctive secondary characters. But most of all you get twists and turns that keep you wondering what else is left both to discover and to throw on poor Phoebe’s shoulders.

Ultimately, it’s an accomplished debut novel that I greatly enjoyed and drew me in to a type of novel that I don’t normally read. If you fancy a gothic tale about guilt, deception, regret and lost love this is for you.

Out now in paperback and as an ebook

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