Book Review: The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

The Shape of Darkness…

About the Book:

As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another… Why is the killer seemingly targeting her business?

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them.

But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…

My Thoughts:

There are few authors that astonish me with their imagination; Laura Purcell sits among these few. Her gothic horror tales of historical fiction are exactly my jam. She writes with such a finely tuned atmosphere; I was walking the streets of Victorian Bath alongside Agnes, all four senses alive with my surrounds. But this is not the Bath of Austen times. This Bath is firmly wearing the effects of Industrialisation, its glamour faded, its inhabitants ground down. More Dickens than Austen, with some Bram Stoker thrown in.

‘This is what her beautiful city has come to: the beau monde and the dandies have fled, leaving only the spinsters, the soot and the ghosts behind.’

I’ve read a few books now on Spiritualism during the Victorian era and beyond. It’s a fascinating topic and was a trade ripe for the pickings if you were able to manipulate the dark arts with some form of sensation. While for the most part, the unexplained could always be explained, to those desperate to connect with the ones they lost, belief was not rationale, as we see here, in The Shape of Darkness. The lengths mediums went to in order to create believability varied, but at times, were quite extraordinary. Pearl’s situation within this story is horrifically all too common. As a child without parents, reliant on her sister, she was at the mercy of the worst of humanity, exacerbated by her albinism. In Victorian times, to have a condition that marked you different was to be subjected to the whims of whoever was in control of you: you could be sold to a circus, put into a cage for charged viewings, or, you could be transformed into a medium.

‘This is not the first time she has heard of spiritualists, although she usually keeps such talk at a distance by saying she does not believe. A more honest statement would be that she does not want to believe. She wants the dead safely caged in Heaven or Hell, not wandering, watching her through the cloudy eyes of a corpse.’

When you scratch the surface of the Victorian era, it’s not hard to find horror. Industrialisation was not initially paced with employee safety, sanitation, or even laws of public safety. Children and women were not protected, neither from labour nor the more nefarious motivations of their family. One form of desperation stems from another, and so on down the line. I had some sympathy, up to a point, for Pearl’s older sister. Her burden from a young age was great, coupled with grief, her actions were not those of a rational person because she no longer had the capability to be rational; desperation within her circumstances warped her judgement, grief had traumatised her sensitivity. I really liked the way in which Laura Purcell set up this family dynamic. The horror of what evolves cannot be denied, but it is a direct by-product of the era.

Themes of grief and trauma are knitted tightly throughout this entire novel, not just within Pearl’s family. It is the very fabric that Agnes is made up of; it influences Simon’s actions and decisions, much to his own detriment. The link between grief and trauma is well established and within this novel, Laura Purcell digs deeper into that trauma and the way in which it might break a person’s rationale and affect their sanity. As well being a slasher horror story with paranormal chills galore, The Shape of Darkness is also a desperately sad study on humanity within the Victorian era. It isn’t pretty historical fiction, but it is excellent, brilliantly crafted and precisely executed. The Shape of Darkness will thrill and chill in equal measure and leave you craving for more of Laura Purcell, an author who is simply a genius within her genre.


Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury Australia for providing me with a copy of The Shape of Darkness for review.

About the Author:

Laura Purcell is a former bookseller, she lives in Colchester with her husband and pet guinea pigs. Her first novel for Bloomsbury, The Silent Companions, was a Radio 2 Book Club pick, was selected for the Zoe Ball ITV Book Club and was the winner of the Thumping Good Read Award.

The Shape of Darkness
Published by Bloomsbury Australia
Released 2nd February 2021

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