In Phoebe Turner’s Victorian home hangs a painting. The Somnambulist. It reminds her of her dear Aunt Cissy, a music hall beauty who she wishes were her mother. Instead, Maud is a strict Christian, pounding the streets with the Hallelujah Army and severely disapproving of Cissy’s sinful life as a singer. When Phoebe glimpses the world inside Wilton’s Music Hall one night, she also draws the attention of men who will change her life forever. Soon her family home is at risk and she must move to the country to be companion to the reclusive Mrs Samuels at Dinwood Court. But all is not well in that house either, and Phoebe feels like her world is unravelling and she is bound for hell.
The Somnambulist is a scandalous Victorian soap of the literary variety, crammed full with characters and twists and turns. Perhaps a few too many characters and plot points, which meant that none were fully developed. Our narrator is young Phoebe; at only 17 maybe she can be forgiven for being silly and naïve, which was probably typical of girls at the time, but her grief isn’t convincing until a lot further on in the book. I don’t think it can be put down as shock, as she is forever crying, but I rarely felt her emotions.
Then the narration breaks off into third person at times to inform the reader of crucial secrets, unbeknown to Phoebe. These are usually from the perspective of Mr Samuels, the man who has mysteriously become an important part of her life. This works quite well for an incident about halfway through, as you really want to scream at Phoebe not to do it, but at other times it just added yet another thread to the already full plot.
I most enjoyed the characters of the music hall; Old Riley, who makes the costumes and is a mother figure to the singers and actors under her wing, Quin, who made me really care what happened at the end and even Mr Collins who is the least developed but quietly looks after everyone.
The pacing was a little odd. It took me a long time to get into the book and then by the end, there seemed to be a major event unfolding in each chapter, shock after shock after shock, which left me feeling it was all a bit silly. But silly in a cultured, Victorian manner that was still quite entertaining. I also felt there was no sense of the passage of time. What was several years seemed like mere weeks in my head, which probably didn’t help the sense that too much was happening to this poor family.
Essie Fox’s writing style is beautiful, when taken page by page. Her prose is descriptive and poetic with a healthy dollop of research into an era it is clear she holds dear. As a debut novel, there is plenty of potential and I would certainly give her another chance.
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