BLURB: “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 to have 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. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?”
REVIEW: As followers of this blog may remember, I absolutely adored Purcell’s previous novel, ‘The Silent Companions’ – in fact, as it currently stands it will probably be my top book of the year – and couldn’t wait to see if ‘The Corset’ was just as full of Gothic magic as its predeccessor. It proved to be just as gripping from the off, and was also told from the alternating perspectives of two very different women.
The novel tells the story of Dorothea and Ruth. Dotty is a wealthy young woman living with a disapproving father who is desperate to marry her off, despite the fact that she is secretly planning to run away with a policeman. She also has an obsession with phrenology, a medical sensation of the period in which it was believed that the shape of a person’s skull could determine their character. Dotty, however, is particularly interested in the link between phrenology and murder. As part of her research, she is a frequent visitor at Oakgate prison, having deep discussions with the female inmates and examining their skulls as part of her ‘charitable’ work. When Ruth arrives at the prison Dotty is eager to meet her, due to the severe nature of the crime she is accused of – murder.
Through Ruth’s perspective, we are taken back to where her story begins, and learn a great deal about her unhappy life and the unsettling events that occurred within it. Living in poverty with a drunken father and overworked mother, and mercilessly tormented by her classmates, Ruth is forced to leave work and become an apprentice to her mother after her talent for needlework is discovered, in order to keep the house afloat. But with the tremendously difficult birth of her younger sister Naomi, things suddenly begin to take a dark turn, and Ruth realises that whatever she shows starts to possess a power that she can neither control or stop. This continues when Ruth is forced into work for the formidable Mrs Metyard, whose mania after the death of her husband makes her hugely dangerous for Ruth and the other maids to be around. Her daughter, Kate, appears just as cruel, and Ruth endures hell on earth while living under the Metyards’ roof. The only person who seems able to help her in this dreadful place is Billy Rooker, Kate’s fiance, who often tries to help Ruth and the other girls when the anger of Mrs Metyard puts them in peril. Mrs Metyard’s cruelty is uncovered, however, and Ruth instead begins to work for her daughter, Kate, now married to Billy. But when Kate dies a sudden and mysterios death, Ruth believes that her stitches have once again wreaked pain and revenge, and confesses to her murder…
Dorothea, meanwhile, is fascinated by Ruth’s story, though she takes little heed of the idea of the needle and thread causing so much chaos and death. Alongside her visits to Ruth, Dorothea is also attempting to ward off an unwanted marriage proposal, prevent the remarriage of her father and make her own dreams of a love match a reality. When she learns some home truths about her father, however, Dotty is faced with an impossible decision that only Ruth can help her to make…
I really enjoyed having the alternating perspectives of these two characters, as it enables the reader to get to know them better. I did, however, find myself enjoying Ruth’s chapters considerably more than Dotty’s, and eagerly raced through the pages to get to them. Despite seeming a relatively ordinary young woman, Dotty is decidedly less likeable than the supposed murderer Ruth. She comes across as selfish and macarbe, though the reader does eventually come to admire her will and determination to stand on her own two feet. Ruth, however, is a far more sympathetic character, as we learn more deeply of her suffering, her strength throughout these obstacles, and the fact that the events that unfolded leading up to Kate’s death were not really her fault. I remained hooked all the way through, and as the story got darker and more unpredictable I couldn’t put the novel down. The twist at the end was brilliant, although I had hoped for mercy for Ruth. My love for ‘The Silent Companions’ remains stronger, but I would definitely highly recommend ‘The Corset’.