Laura (as I over-familiarly like to call her) is something of a staple round these parts so you can imagine I was super excited to learn she had a new novel out in January. I snapped it up like the last pig in a blanket at Christmas.
The Shape of Darkness focuses on two heroines – silhouette artist Agnes, a sickly spinster barely keeping a roof over the heads of her family – and ghostly medium, Pearl – a mere child being ghost-lit into performing seances to keep her own family afloat. Driven by her overbearing half-sister Myrtle, Pearl suffers horribly after each performance – because it is all performance, isn’t it?
When Agnes is visited by the police after a sitting with a Mr Boyle, who’s gruesomely slaughtered mere hours after she says goodbye – she’s shocked but more concerned about the bad publicity for her studio. Money is tight enough already. When her next sitter meets a similar fate, she can no longer ignore the connection. But who’s out to fuck with her?
Of course at some point our two protagonists are bound to cross over and when Agnes goes looking for answers, Pearl is there. Not particularly willingly – but she has her own demons, and maybe Agnes can help her too. If she can only extract herself from Moaning Myrtle’s iron grip.
Well. Well well well. I won’t lie, I found this one took a little while to warm up. I can’t put my finger on exactly why but I found the first quarter a bit of a slog. And then BOOM! I was all in (as I knew I would be) and I just thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I felt for both the central characters but particularly poor Pearl who’s lived her whole life in the shadows. As an albino child she’s naturally sensitive to light and Myrtle has royally cashed in on her ethereal appearance and demeanor. There’s a lot of sadness and darkness in their household, as Pearl’s father is at death’s door after a lifetime of working at the match factory.
Agnes is sympathetic too as she struggles to care for her nephew and elderly mother – and work out why all her clients are dying horribly. Laura is great at the Gothic yarn and this tale is particularly twisty. There are clues and some reveals are more surprising than others but I loved how well developed the characters are, how vividly the surroundings manifest themselves in my mind’s eye – all a credit to the beautiful writing style of its author.
The decay and the darkness blend so well with the lovely prose – and the creepy parts – the ghostly shadow play, the spooky seances – are genuinely unsettling. There’s a fair amount of gore too but the way it’s framed is so subtle that it’s really your own imagination filling in the macabre blanks.
I ended up really liking this one. Is it the best Laura Purcell novel? No, but it really satisfied and I can’t wait to see what she does next. PS. I’ve just found out that my sister-in-law hasn’t read any of them so somebody’s getting a maternity care package at some point soon…