It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to The Corset – I’d really enjoyed reading The Silent Companions, the author’s best-selling novel of the previous year. But it has taken me a while to get round to picking it up. I’ve been in a six month reading slump (that naturally coincides with us purchasing/moving into/decorating/maintaining a new and larger house) so I’ve generally been getting through a lot fewer books than normal, and also The Corset was one of the vast majority of my books that remains packed away in boxes. The only thing that led to it being read in May 2019 was the fact that its box happened to be in a room from which I was too lazy to move in order to obtain reading material. I’m glad it was though – I ended up enjoying The Corset possibly even more than The Silent Companions.
Plot summary: Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?
Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.
When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.
Star Rating for The Corset: * * * *
On the face of it, the plot for The Corset appears very similar to The Silent Companions, to the extent that I actually rolled my eyes when I read it for the first time. Oh look, there’s an incarcerated Victorian woman telling her story, and you don’t know whether she’s mad or not. And there’s an object that may or not have supernatural, creepy powers. I didn’t blame Laura Purcell – it was a format that worked well in her previous book, so why wouldn’t she repeat it? Except, she didn’t.
Yes, we’re set in the same era and there’s a woman in prison whom nobody believes when she talks about her experiences. And it features the same pervading, mysterious gothic tone that I loved about The Silent Companions… but otherwise, it’s actually pretty different.
In The Corset, it’s not an object that is the focus of supernatural suspicion – it’s Ruth herself. She believes that she has the power to imbue her threads with whatever emotion she happens to be experiencing at the time; which isn’t ideal considering she’s a seamstress. That’s where the ‘is she mad or is she manipulative?’ aspect comes in – Ruth is passing on this story a few days before she is due to be hanged for murder, and her charitable companion is obviously skeptical about Ruth’s claims.
Speaking of the charitable companion… alongside Ruth’s story runs that of Dorothea, a middle class young lady whose interest in phrenology and prison reform have so far put off all eligible suitors, much to her father’s irritation. I did enjoy Dorothea’s story, although it’s fair to say that Ruth’s held me a little more tightly. Having said that, I think Dotty as a person was quite cleverly done – she had modern ideas of independence without it being cliched or sledge-hammery.
The Corset isn’t as creepy as The Silent Companions. There are no figures that move when you aren’t looking, and the setting is rather more mundane. It didn’t keep me awake of night with fears of being watched. However, that’s offset by there being slightly more in the way of character development and plot – it’s a meatier book, somehow, with more substance. And it’s much more fast-paced – there’s less sitting around waiting for statues to move.
I think the ending was cleverly done. It didn’t have the ‘oomph’ that The Silent Companions did, but it was so cleverly written that I actually had to go back and reread it a second time with a nod of appreciation. It was satisfying – the right ending, even if a slightly predictable one.
Apparently Laura Purcell has a new book coming out in September 2019, called Bone China. It looks slightly different to both The Corset and The Silent Companions, which do run along a similar theme. This one has controversial medical trials (which I love), but also fairies (which I do not). We’ll see. I’m clearly going to buy it anyway, given how much I loved this book, but I’m not totally on board with it thus far.
Anyway, third book aside, I really do recommend the author’s second novel, The Corset. It takes the creepy, quasi-madness of The Silent Companions, but adds some excellent character development and a faster moving plot. All in all, an excellent evolution of the original.