There is a sensate, sensuous eeriness about Fiercombe Manor (February 2015) by Kate Riordan that overshadows the trite plot line and enmeshes the reader into dark, tragic Gothic themes. Told in both first and third persons, this second novel explores and exploits the narrow, arcane views of women’s health, the mistreatment and misunderstanding of newly-birthed mothers, the deleterious effects of what we now know as post-partum depression, and the stigma of bearing an out-of-wedlock child. Although set in the English countryside in both the periods of 1932-1936 and 1898-1906, this dual narrative, as written by Riordan, is timeless.
In 1932, Alice Eveleigh falls in love with a fellow worker, spends a night with him, and finds herself pregnant. Her mother, fearful of their family’s reputation, concocts a dead husband for her daughter and packs her off to the eponymous Fiercombe Manor where an old school chum, Edith Jaleph, is the housekeeper. On the old rambling estate nestled in rural Gloucestershire Alice relates in her own words how she comes to grips with her situation and ”meets” (through a hidden diary) Elizabeth…who forty years earlier is also with child. Fearful of a second onset of puerperal insanity (post-partum depression) and a second asylum committal, Elizabeth harbors a dark secret that threatens to destroy her marriage and possibly her life. Edward, consumed with wanting an heir to carry on his family’s name and fortune, is a typical arrogant husband – possessive of his wife and family, he surmises that what he does and thinks without Elizabeth’s consent is in her own best interest.
The parallels between the two young women are obvious, although painstakingly drawn out by the author. Their essence is, however, nicely captured on page 267 when Alice claims her life is a “…morbid echo of Elizabeth’s…” and then again on page 377 as she states: “Our circumstances had seemed so different, and yet were so much the same at root: both of us women, both of us mothers, and both of us entrapped by those supposedly close to us, unable to direct our own destinies.” The author plays the two against and with one another, culminating in two richly drawn stories that are compellingly captivating.
Riordan writes like a talented detail-oriented landscape artist, painting her spectral ghostly portraits against the stark patina of an all too familiar plot with contrived twists and turns. She turns the every day historical Gothic romance into something weirdly wonderful and haunting. Fiercombe Manor is a heady, sometimes heavy read, not to be read in one or even two sittings but slowly enjoyed to capture each suspenseful sensation. Even the elemental, predictable ending is both tragic and joyous. And its themes, rarely touched upon by other contemporary women authors, are bravely tackled by this accomplished British writer and journalist. For followers of Downton Abbey, Dark Shadows, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Hitchcock, this novel is a best-bet read for dark and stormy nights.
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