Saturday, 29 September 2012

Review: The Whores' Asylum by Katy Darby

Book cover of The Whores' Asylum by Katy Darby
So it turns out that you should never choose a book based on the way the cover feels when you stroke it. Funny that. Between the lovely old-fashioned image printed on the beautiful parchment-y cover, what could go wrong? Oh. Everything.

Plot summary - Oxford, 1887: Even as Victoria celebrates the fiftieth year of her reign, a stone's throw from the calm cloisters and college spires lies Jericho, a maze of seedy streets and ill-lit taverns, haunted by drunkards, thieves and the lowest sort of brazen female as ever lifted her petticoats.

When Stephen Chapman, a brilliant young medical student, is persuaded to volunteer at a shelter devoted to reforming the fallen women of Oxford, his closest friend Edward feels a strange sense of dread. But even Edward - who already knows the devastating effect of falling in love with the wrong woman - cannot foresee the macabre and violent events that will unfold around them, or stop Diana, the woman who seems destined to drive them apart.

That's a wonderful plot summary; it's just a shame it doesn't really relate to the damn book at all. Hell, I still want to read the book that blurb refers to. The actual story is much more mundane, generic and, frankly, boring than the above makes it sound. There's not much mystery, violence, dark twists or anything else that it implies - instead it's just a rather dreary story that I struggled to pick up again after every time I put it down.

It's written in four parts incorporating supposedly different viewpoints and timelines to document the current sad state of Mr Goodman, who we meet at the beginning. It's an interesting concept and I understand what the author was trying to do, but I can't help but feel that not much was revealed by each viewpoint - we don't really learn anything new about the characters and each perspective sounded pretty much the same to me. The various chapters just didn't seem to 'click' together. Like, various questions are raised in one chapter, and the next tries valiantly to answer them... but somehow doesn't quite manage.

On that character point, I just couldn't be induced to care about any of them. Fraser was too uppity and condemning while Goodman is too weak and naive. Once again, I do understand the principle behind these characters and why they are how they are, but it was taken too far in that direction and ended up just irritating me beyond belief. I liked Sukey's character (although in my head I constantly pictured her as Kaley Cuoco) although her personality development wasn't really subtle or refined enough for my liking.

And Diana. Oh Diana. I get the feeling the reader is meant to like her by the end, but I absolutely couldn't. She came across as alternately malicious and weak and although Goodman and Fraser might suddenly, startlingly accept her flaws for no good reason, there was actually no good reason for them to do so.

That's the other point about this book - a lot of it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. Fraser's guilt towards the end is completely unfounded and we're never really told why he suddenly becomes so receptive to Diana. It actually made me want to hurl the book across the desk in frustration, because what was revealed should in no way have been responsible for his complete opinion overhaul. Also, I know this is a work of fiction, but Goodman's eventual downfall was incredibly unrealistic, both in a literal sense and a medical one. It's technically possible, yes, but the balance of probabilities makes it so unlikely it's ridiculous.  

The thing is, Katy Darby could actually be a very talented writer - the quality of the prose in The Whore's Asylum is astounding and the descriptions of Victorian London are beautifully vivid. I would challenge any experienced author to do better. It's the just the incredibly slow plot and character development that let her down - with a little more planning out and consideration, her next work could be astounding. 

Still, I just can't get over how relieved I was to actually finish this book and move on to something, anything, else.

Just as a quick note, The Whores' Asylum has been republished in September 2012 under the new title of The Unpierced Heart, with a blue cover. This is the same book, although it's equally as beautiful!


  1. Victorian prostitutes seem to be all the rage at the moment! I have The Virgin Cure on my TBR and I know Essie Fox's second book is set in a Victorian brothel as well. Odd little trends we get!

  2. Oh, what a disappointment. I would be seduced by the cover of this book so I'm glad I saw your review first!

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  4. I'm glad I saw this post. I've had The Whore's Asylum on my Amazon wishlist for while (and as we know, wishlisted books nearly always turn into purchases!). I shall delete it now - I can't be bothered with dreary Victorians!


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