Book Review: The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Books (June 18, 2019)
Length: 368 pages
One of my favorite reads last year was The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, a Gothic historical chiller whose innovative plot with its creepily delicious vibes and stunning reveals left me reeling for days. When I found out that her new book The Poison Thread (titled The Corset in the UK), you can bet I was excited and couldn’t wait to read it.
And holy crap, mind blown! What with the author’s previous novel setting such a high bar, I knew there was a good chance my expectations wouldn’t be met, but The Poison Thread ended up blasting them away and delivered a whole lot more besides. I loved this book, and in many ways, I thought it was even better than The Silent Companions. Told in a similar style and format which alternates between two central viewpoints, the story is set in the Victorian era and follows Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy young heiress who visits women in prisons as part of her charity work, as well as Ruth Butterham, a sixteen-year-old inmate awaiting trial for murder.
As you can imagine, the two women couldn’t be any more different. Raised in high society, Dorothea never wanted for anything growing up, but with her twenty-fifth birthday fast approaching, she is growing increasingly frustrated with her father’s demands for her to marry. For one thing, she is already in love with a handsome and well-regarded police constable, who nevertheless would be deemed socially unacceptable and beneath her station in her father’s eyes. Furthermore, she also doubts that any of the suitors picked for her would approve of her interests. Having long held a fascination for phrenology, Dorothea has been independently studying the relationship between head shape and morality, using her visits to the Oakgate Prison for women as research trips to gather measurement data and personal stories from the inmates. It is there that she meets Ruth, a young maid accused of callously murdering her mistress by deliberate and slow degrees. Through the interviews conducted by Dorothea, readers get to learn more about Ruth as she recounts her life during the years leading up to her arrest. Unlike Dorothea, Ruth grew up in poverty as the daughter of an alcoholic artist and an overworked seamstress. From her mother she learned the art of sewing, and as it turned out, she was extraordinarily gifted at it.
However, Ruth is convinced that her talent goes beyond mere skill, believing that she has the power to channel her thoughts and emotions into each and every stitch. Infused with tragedy, anger and pain, the garments she makes are cursed items that bring bad things and death to those who wear them, she tells Dorothea, who is baffled by the girl’s wild claims. Does Ruth truly believe in this supernatural nonsense, or is it just a cruel trick from a bona fide psychopath who wants to mess with Dorothea’s mind? Surely the things Ruth describes can’t be real?
This element of uncertainty was what made The Poison Thread so captivating, and I was completely bewitched by this book which kept me reading long into the night. The story frightened and disturbed me, though not exactly in the traditional sense, and that was just fine with me. After all, I’ve always found the best Gothic horror to be those that seek to create unease through atmosphere, generating an oppressive aura of mystery and intrigue around uncanny situations that can’t be explained. Of course, Laura Purcell did just that, and I recognized many of the same methods used in The Silent Companions which made that book such an eerie, compelling read. But in additional the feelings of dread and uncertainty surrounding Ruth’s story, the writing also evoked the more visceral and raw emotions related to earthly horrors like poverty, disease, class inequality, and human cruelty. Some of these sections were difficult to read, but they helped define Ruth while also presenting us with a lot more questions about her motivations.
Needless to say, this is an incredibly layered novel. Much like it was with The Silent Companions, there’s a lot hidden beneath the surface. One by one, these threads are gradually teased out as events unfold in both characters’ lives. As a result, this story is a bit of a slow burner, but because there’s so much to pay attention to, things still feel like they move along at a good clip. Certainly, the characters help a lot. You’ll no doubt go through a roller coaster of emotions when it comes to both Dorothea and Ruth, changing your mind about them all the time as you find out more about their lives and how they’ve grown. And that, I think, is the beauty of Laura Purcell’s writing; she will constantly keep you guessing, throwing out new information and clues at every turn. I for one can’t say I expected that ending coming.
In my opinion, The Poison Thread was damn near perfect. Fans of Gothic horror, do yourselves a favor and check out the work of Laura Purcell, who has now solidified her status as one of my favorite writers in the genre. This book was simply astonishing. Her next one can’t come soon enough.