Saturday, April 06, 2024

The Fascination by Essie Fox: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

The Fascination by Essie Fox

The Fascination is a stand-alone historical novel set in Victorian England. It’s about the seedier underside of the society, the fascination of Victorians with macabre and everything different. It’s about found families and acceptance too, and written well enough that I was wavering between three and four stars. And then, in the last paragraph, the author slaps the reader with a wet dishrag, yelling “April Fools. Question everything you’ve read.” So here I am, questioning.

The setting is Victorian only because the author says so. The descriptions are sparse and could be from any era. Author especially fails to grasp the material culture and the value of money. It’s difficult to believe that a travelling musician could have a large house with papered walls and rooms for several people, and a boat too, without independent means, which there apparently weren’t. A penniless apprentice of an anatomist definitely can’t afford tailor-made suits (in plural) and colourful silk waistcoats. A troupe of freaks doesn’t get to perform in one of the finest theatres in London, and they do not get costumes made of fresh materials for every production. The book is set in a fantasy, where these things are possible so that the reader can feel happy for the characters and where they end up in life. It almost worked.

There are two point of view characters, Keziah, whose chapters are told in first person past tense, and Theo, whose chapters are in third person present tense, which took a moment to get used to. For all that the reader gets an insight in Keziah, she’s curiously bland. She doesn’t have interests, skills, hopes or dreams until at the very end. She exists solely to tell the story of her twin sister, Tilly.

A violent incident in Tilly’s childhood has stopped her growth when she was five. She’s an adult woman in a child’s body. But she’s beautiful, can sing, and loves to perform, so she has found a place on stage. The plot revolves mostly around her, her addiction to opium and her abduction by evil people who covet everything different.

We only get Keziah’s view of Tilly. She observes her constantly, yet not once does she wonder what Tilly’s life is like, being different and constantly gawped at. We’re not given scenes either, where people would treat Tilly, or the other different characters, badly. It’s presumed. There are no descriptions of everyday life where Tilly’s life might be difficult because of her size. The idea is probably to show Keziah’s acceptance of her sister the way she is, but it comes across as wilful blindness.

That is doubly so when it comes to Theo, and it’s a deliberate choice by the author. He’s a grandson of an aristocrat who gets thrown out of his home without a penny when the grandfather finally manages to produce a male heir. Lord Seabrook has an unhealthy fascination with the macabre and his collections include human specimen preserved in formaldehyde. It doesn’t come as a surprise that he turns out to be the bad guy of the story.

Theo is saved by his governess who arranges him an apprenticeship with an anatomist, a disgraced doctor who runs a museum of macabre. Theo wants to become a doctor, but lack of funds makes it impossible. Or that’s what the reader is given to understand.

The last paragraph of the story reveals that Theo is physically different too. Since the author wants to keep it a secret, I won’t reveal how—though other reviewers have done so. By leaving the revelation at the end, the author probably wants the reader to question their prejudices. Keziah certainly points it out.

But it doesn’t work. The reader needs a chance to realise their prejudices exist and that’s only possible if they know the pertinent facts about the character and can work them along the way. Even if the author doesn’t want to state the difference outright, there were plenty of chances for giving the reader hints, to make them question their understanding of Theo along the way.

Theo is a point of view character who never questions his difference, doesn’t rue it or wonder if it hinders his chances in life. He doesn’t ask if he’ll ever end up as a specimen in his grandfather’s collections. He’s utterly indifferent about it. The author fails to get inside the character to show the reader what it feels like to be different in a society that reviles those that aren’t perfect. He turns out to be gay too, which we only find out from another character, not him.

According to Keziah, people don’t notice Theo’s difference, because he’s such a charismatic person. But he’s not. He’s reticent and apologetic, colourful waistcoats and all. And so, instead of turning the mirror at the reader, the last sentence screams GAWP, and we gawp. And we see that Aleski, the character with hirsutism is only accepted as a bedfellow after he shaves his face, and Martha only gets the life she’s dreamed of after her cleft mouth is operated. The reader is disgusted, but not with Theo who is a lovely person, or the other characters, except maybe Keziah. The reader is disgusted with the book and its author.

I received a free copy from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

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