Wednesday, 13 February 2013

August 2012 - The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

We had a good turn out for this meeting and unfortunately the book failed to grip us as a whole. A few members found the book enjoyable, but most found it too slow to start and let down by the synopsis, we thought it would be more of a Victorian ghost story. The first half of the book didn't provide us with any motivation to continue reading, and the majority of us had already worked out that Cissy was Phoebe’s real mother by about page 50!
The basic themes throughout the plot such as the shame of having an illicit child in Victorian times and the negative views of women in the theatre industry we believable, but the many, smaller themes throughout seemed all over the place and would be perfectly adapted into a Victorian soap opera. We found some parts bizarre and a bit pointless such as how only Lydia seemed to notice the similarities between Phoebe and Esther, Mr Turner coming back from “the dead”,  Joseph sleeping with his Esther, and Stephens being in bed with Joseph when he was a child!
None of the characters were very well developed, there were just far too many of them and none of us could empathise with the main characters. Out of all the characters, the two pointed out at being the most convincing were Maude and her strange evangelical ways, very believable for that era, although she was not meant to be a likeable character she was certainly one of the better developed ones. Also Old Riley was well liked, flamboyant and always there for Phoebe. Phoebe was just a stereotyped innocent, young  female whose crying and grieving when nothing else filled the gap began to irritate our readers. There was potential for many of the minor characters, such as the old man at the docks, but he was sadly, never really developed. We were quite disappointed that although Cissy died early in the book, she was still a main character but again, we felt her character went underdeveloped and we failed to feel any emotions for her. Too many characters and not enough emotional content meant that as a group we struggled to remember the actual characters in this book.
As with the characters, there were lots of mini story lines floating around within the main story and may have been better should the author have chosen to develop just a couple of them. Among the many moments which stood out to us were: Lydia’s illness, the quick death of Cissy (too quick)? The sexual experience at the lookout, Stephens wanting to be close to Joseph so that he could feel close to Lydia, Caroline’s reply to Phoebe proving she is not a cold hearted airhead, Nathaniel sleeping with young girls, the anti-Semitism, descriptions of the music halls and Lydia’s attachment to Phoebe. We were all very interested in the historical elements of this book and could tell that the author had taken a great deal of time to research the subject. The one section that worked really well was when Old Riley was holding a séance and Phoebe turning up scared the old ladies, it was great that Old Riley used this to her advantage and provided a funny moment within a very dark story.
Most thought that the ending was too abrupt and very “Happily ever after”. It was good that the ending had no loose ends, but was perhaps a bit too predictable, and had more of an epilogue feel. The passing of time seemed confusing and caused members to reread sections. We all found it quite amusing that it ended “The Butler did it”! We all had our doubts on whether Quinn came back for Phoebe or work, but generally were happy that Nathaniel had written to him to ask him to come back, although most of us who had finished the book several weeks ago needed prompting to remember the ending and characters as nothing was memorable and did leave us with the feeling of not caring what happened.
Although the above seems quite a bad summary of the book, we thought that first time novelist Essie Fox shows great potential. Her writing style is extremely descriptive and poetic, and she obviously puts a lot of research into her work. She lacked the depth needed to develop her characters and storyline, and would be better cutting back the quantity of both, spending more time on making them more memorable. We would be interested to read any non fiction work, should she produce any. Her next novel is meant to be about Victorian prostitutes and art galleries, maybe including too much again as individually they both sound like interesting topics.
Thirteen people attended this meeting and the book received an average score of 5 out of ten, 3 being the lowest and 6 being the highest.

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