TBR Pile Challenge: The Woman in White

Thanks to the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader, I was able to cross off a book that was on the first page of my list! A book on the first page of my list (it’s in one of those Moleskine agendas) has probably been on my list for several YEARS.

This time, the book that had been waiting for a read was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

For someone who professes to love crime fiction as much as I do, it astounds me that I only just now read one of the early examples of the genre!


The plot is more or less thus: Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher, is about to take a position in Cumberland when he meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white one night. She is very agitated and asks for his help to make her way to London. He helps her and it’s only after he sees her safely into a cab that he finds out she has escaped from an asylum. He is completely unsettled by it and when he’s been in Cumberland for a day he makes a connection with the house he’s staying in and the woman in white. And that’s how Walter, his love Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe come to be ensnared in the net that Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco have set.

This book was published in 1859 and in many ways it is very much a product of its time, especially when it comes to its portrayal of women. Women are constantly described as weak and hysterical, their memories can’t be counted on, they need to be protected from really horrible news because they can’t handle it and it’s best if they just stay home and endeavor to be calm. Count Fosco does have a soft spot for calm, collected, brilliant, lovely Marian Halcombe but stops short of full admiration because, after all, she is just a woman and not actually a worthy adversary.

I think that Count Fosco must have been the early inspiration for villains in pop culture. He’s described as an obscenely fat, old man, who moves as silently from room to room as any woman. He is always impeccably dressed and he has a menagerie of pets that he trains every morning and treats as his little children. And he’s completely diabolical. Obviously. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of him kind of like this:


It took me a while to get through this book, certainly longer than any of its modern equivalents. Collins really spins his tale and is constantly teasing the reader about what’s to come. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, like Dickens, Collins wrote this novel as a serial publication. But I really enjoyed it. Compared to modern crime fiction, the crime that’s been committed in The Woman in White is really very tame. There was a moment of “that’s it?” for me, but I quickly admonished myself. The ideas of criminality, of what could shock audiences in 1859 and what we need to shock us now are very different. Which reminds me, I really do need to read The Invention of Murder

So there. I read The Woman in White! And I have The Moonstone kicking around now too.


Gothic Novels: The Quick

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

When I read the description of Lauren Owen’s novel The Quick, I was sold on it. I couldn’t want to dive into this one.

I think I would do you a disservice if I described this book in my own words so, from the inside cover:

London, 1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing rooms of high society and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Unnerved, his sister, Charlotte sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine city that greets her, she uncovers a secret world at the margin, populated by unforgettable characters, including a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of one of the country’s preeminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the most ambitious, and most dangerous men in England. 

The Quick

Firstly, this book is beautiful. The cover design is exquisite and thoughtful and the feel of the dust jacket?!? Velvety – it’s the same texture I chose for my wedding invites for the express purpose of evoking the cover of a book. And when this book sits on your shelf, it’s spine is designed to look like an old leather bound book. I’m a sucker for great book covers.

In order to get to enjoy the full experience of The Quick, you can’t know too much about what it’s about. I thought I was in for a magical Gothic tale – something like The Shadow of the Wind; I thought we were going to spend some time in the seedy underbelly of London at the turn of the last century. And I kind of did, sometimes. But we spent far more time in the fancy drawing rooms of the elite. I’m not complaining – I enjoyed that setting too.

One of the unexpected things about this novel is the amount of viewpoints. Owen jumps around between third and first person perspectives, diary style and straight story telling. At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about this  – was it disjointed? Distracting? Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on it, I can honestly say it’s not. I appreciated the different character narratives – it offered a really layered story. Owen’s talent lies in the fact that she was able to bring all those narratives together again to finish the story completely. I adore a good ending – I’m one of those readers that can forgive nearly all story flaws if I get a great ending. The Quick has an exquisite, delicious, thrilling ending. I got goosebumps, it was so good.

I found that I was holding my breath through a lot of the story. The characters are all so unsavoury, there is so much cloak and dagger stuff with the club and the people that are a part of it. So convincing was the idea of The Aegolius Club that I actually had to look it up to see if such a thing had in fact existed. That was before I got to the part where Owen explained what the deal was with The Aegolius Club. Somehow Owen has managed to create a completely believable world based on total fantasy.

There are many opportunities for goosebumps in this book. I enjoyed the ride, and as I mentioned, the ending was a delight. I’m curious as to what Owen’s follow up book will be.