Publisher: Serpents Tail
Publication Date: 2nd June 2022
I went into this book knowing very little. I latched onto certain words and phrases in the blurb such as ‘palatial Victorian wedding cake house’ and ‘troubled haunted mother’ and I was in!
Let me start by saying that this book totally consumed me for days. If you follow me on social media you will see that I was waxing lyrical about it and probably getting on peoples nerves (ok ok Mand we get it, you LOVE the book!).
So what’s it all about?
The book opens with Sylvia Wren one of the most important American artists of the past century receiving a letter which alludes to the fact that she is not who she says she is and has a secretive past. We then go on to learn that Sylvia was infact born Iris Chapel, the second youngest of 6 sisters who grew up in a Victorian wedding cake house in New England, as part of the Chapel firearms dynasty.
Iris’s father is a workaholic and very detached from his family, often only eating meals with them and then disappearing to his study. Their mother Belinda is a haunted woman, often visited in the night by what she deems to be the spirits of all the people who have died as a direct result of one of the Chapel firearms. Not only this, she is haunted by the idea that she and the women in the family are cursed, particularly as her mother died in childbirth and her mother before her and her mother before her. It is said that Belinda was born hearing her mothers death screams and continues to hear them still.
The six sisters are all named after flowers. There’s Aster, Rosalind, Calla, Daphne, Iris then the youngest Hazel who is know as ‘Zelie’. When Aster meets a young man on holiday she quickly falls in love and plans to marry. Belinda is horrified and is convinced that something dreadful is going to happen to Aster if she marries. Everybody else in the family dismisses this as one of Belinda’s ‘moments’ and they take very little notice of her. However, when Iris starts to see and hear some strange things she slowly comes to learn that her mother may be right.
It isn’t a spoiler for me to say that Aster does indeed die the morning after her wedding of mysterious causes that are written off as flu by their father and the family doctor. Not long after this Rosalind the second sister dies after her wedding, again from mysterious causes…..what follows after this is the rest of the sisters trying to navigate their grief and trying desperately to make their escape from a house which holds nothing but fear and upset.
We follow the story from Iris’s perspective as she tries to figure out the curse that has befallen her family whilst trying to avoid the mental asylum that her mother has so often been incarcerated in for stating her beliefs. Iris is desperate to make her escape from the house and the family name without losing her life along the way.
This book hooked me in from the outset, with its depiction of a gothic Victorian building housing this set of six siblings who are somewhat sequestered away and have only each other for company. It is assumed that they will learn homemaking and etiquette skills at the local ladies college and then be married off one by one. They live a life under the shadow of their strange mother who they mostly ignore the ramblings of and a father who is cold and almost fearful of them and their moods.
The atmosphere in the house is oppressive and you can feel why the girls each want so desperately to escape. I love a good family mystery particularly when a so called ‘curse’ is involved and I was utterly invested in the search for answers. There is a ghostly atmosphere in certain places but also an insidious feeling of something not being quite right all the way through. You just know that the Chapel family are gossiped about in the village and rightly so. All eyes are on them and their continuing grief.
This books gave me huge Shirley Jackson vibes and I loved the 1950’s setting. A time when there were still certain expectations of women even if some young women were beginning to rail against them.
This has been described as a gothic ghost story with a fiery feminist zeal and I couldn’t agree more!
I was completely hooked and didn’t want to put it down! I’m still thinking about it now, some weeks after finishing it. It is the best book I’ve read so far this year and it will take something very special indeed to knock it off the top spot.
Thank you so much to Lisa Shakespeare and Serpents Tail for my review copy.
See you all soon.