Audiobook Review: In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce
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 Audio (January 19, 2021)
Length: 15 hrs and 28 mins
Narrators: Natalie Naudus, Stacey Glemboski
Last year, one of my favorite discoveries was Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, her debut that impressed me so much that I would read anything else she writes, sight unseen. Because of that, I was totally unprepared for what awaited me when I picked up In the Garden of Spite, her new novel about the most notorious female serial killer in American history.
Oh man, this book was so messed up. So brilliantly twisted. This nightmare-inducing historical is a fictionalized account of Belle Gunness, known as “the Black Widow of the Midwest” who is thought to have murdered at least fourteen and quite possibly up to forty people between the years of 1884 and 1908. But before she became a notorious killer, she was Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset, a young girl born into a family of poor farmhands in Selbu, Norway. In Bruce’s reconstruction of Brynhild’s backstory, our protagonist becomes pregnant at seventeen, but when she demands the father to marry her, the young man tries to kill her instead.
After she loses the baby in the attack, Brynhild makes plans to leave Norway and travel to America to stay with her older sister Nellie and her family in Chicago. But before her departure, Brynhild makes sure to get revenge by fatally poisoning her ex-lover, thus beginning her journey and lifelong obsession with spite. Once in Chicago, she changes her name to Belle, vowing to leave her old identity behind with her poverty-stricken life. Instead of helping Nellie with her children and work around their apartment, Belle sets her sights on finding a husband of means, eventually marrying Mads Sorensen, who was able to satisfy her expensive appetites—at least for a time. Once someone ceases to become useful to her, they have a tendency to drop dead, something her sister Nellie notices first with Mads and then with Belle’s second husband, Peter Gunness. They say blood is thicker than water, and to Nellie, Belle will always be “Little Brynhild,” a scared girl held in her arms. But as the body count rises, and Nellie’s suspicions grow stronger by the day, how long before her loyalty to her sister runs out?
What really got to me was how plausible this novel was, despite the author’s afterword explaining how she blended truth and fiction. Yes, there were a lot of embellishments, but a lot of it was rooted in fact too, integrating what is known about Belle Gunness and her heinous crimes. After reading this book, I went and did some reading of my own into her life, which gave me the heebie-jeebies all over again, but also an even greater appreciation for what Camilla Bruce achieved here.
Not surprisingly, the highlight of the book was her portrayal of Belle’s state of mind. Most monsters don’t feel that they’re monsters, but on some level, our protagonist does recognize something broken within her. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of her character is how she feels justified in being the monster, rationalizing her degeneracy and why she must do what she does. She is also ruthlessly persistent; once she puts her mind to a goal, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop her from achieving it. What’s even more complicated is the background Bruce has constructed for Belle, designed to establish sympathy—which worked to an extent. Eventually though, Belle’s thirst for blood—for spite—becomes simply too extreme, but of course by this point the story has become so fascinating that putting it down is impossible.
Still, even without any sympathy for Belle, I found myself incredulously reading on, addicted to her voice. She was so vile and chilling, and yet I was completely engrossed, wanting to know more. As she became increasingly emboldened, not just in committing murder but also in her cold calculating way of taking in children and fooling the world into believing they are her own, the depravity reaches a whole other level, not to mention the gruesomeness and violence. Only Nellie’s chapters, scattered among Belle’s, helped keep the terror manageable by injecting a bit of sanity into this disturbing read. That said, the story still remained a nerve-wracking head trip as Nellie realizes the depth of Belle’s hunger, agonizing over what to do because in spite of herself, she still loves her little sister.
Ultimately, In the Garden of Spite is an intensely compulsive read, comprising a sharp concoction of historical fiction, psychological thriller, and of course, horror. Certainly if the latter is what you are looking for, your cravings will be answered, though there’s also much here for fans of historicals and true crime. I highly recommend this book, as well as the audio format that I reviewed. Narrators Natalie Naudus and Stacey Glemboski performed the parts of Belle and Nellie perfectly, giving voice to all the complex emotions that made the characters in this book feel so incredibly, scarily real.