The Somnambulist by Essie Fox is one of the books featured in the TV Book Club 2012, sponsored by Specsavers. It’s described on the cover as “a spellbinding tale of lost love, grief, murder and madness in Victorian England”, and that’s a pretty fair summary.
There is mention of that Wilkie Collins masterpiece, The Woman in White, in the opening pages – it’s said that a painting by Millais of a young female somnambulist may have been inspired by it. This suggests that we are in for a densely plotted murder mystery of the kind Collins favoured, but although there is a murder which has a critical effect on the events of the story, I wouldn’t say that this is first and foremost a crime novel. And perhaps this book is a good illustration of the unsatisfactory nature of genre definitions – however one describes it, the key point is that it is a pretty gripping read.(It's an odd coincidence, by the way, that another fictional, though very different, painting by Millais features in The Hanging Wood.)
The focal point is young Phoebe Turner, and most of the story is told from her perspective. Her devotion to her Aunt Cissy leads her to a brief involvement in the music hall, and after her aunt’s death, because her mother is impoverished, Phoebe accepts a job as a companion to a sickly and reclusive woman who is married to businessman Nathaniel Samuels.
Several chapters are presented in the third person, with Samuels as the viewpoint character. A considerable amount of plot development is conducted in these chapters, which are rather less satisfactory than those narrated by Phoebe – a character who clearly fascinated her author. But this is a minor flaw in a truly accomplished debut novel.
I’m a fan of Victorian fiction, and also of more recent books set in the Victorian period. That age has an enduring appeal, and Essie Fox captures it very well. Her descriptive powers are formidable, and she conjures up splendidly both the bustle of the East End and the sinister atmosphere of the Samuels’ country retreat. A very good read.