Source: Review copy
Publication: 15 September 2022 from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review
One extraordinary mystery…
1899, Belle Époque Paris. Lucienne’s two daughters are believed dead when her mansion burns to the ground, but she is certain that her girls are still alive and embarks on a journey into the depths of the spiritualist community to find them.
1949, Post-War Québec. Teenager Lina’s father has died in the French Resistance, and as she struggles to fit in at school, her mother introduces her to an elderly woman at the asylum where she works, changing Lina’s life in the darkest way imaginable.
2002, Quebec. A former schoolteacher is accused of brutally stabbing her husband – a famous university professor – to death. Detective Maxine Grant, who has recently lost her own husband and is parenting a teenager and a new baby single-handedly, takes on the investigation.
Under enormous personal pressure, Maxine makes a series of macabre discoveries that link directly to historical cases involving black magic and murder, secret societies and spiritism … and women at breaking point, who will stop at nothing to protect the ones they love…
Johana Gustawsson is on fire in her latest and most shockingly vivid novel to date. She has written a strong, feminist gothic novel that ties together the lives of three women from different eras in an unflinching narrative that crosses continents yet manages to be intimate and compelling in its gaze.
Quebec, 2002 and Lieutenant Maxine Grant is investigating a murder. Grant is just back from maternity leave and is throwing herself back into work after the tragic death of her own husband. Now she is raising her baby and struggling to keep a good relationship with her teenage daughter when she is assigned the murder of Philippe Caron, husband of Maxine’s former teacher, Pauline.
In the Paris of 1899 everything seems possible. It is a time of elegance and infinite possibility. But when Lucienne Docquer’s two daughters die in a fire, her grief drives her to take desperate measures as she look for ways to contact them in death.
Back in Quebec and now in 1949, Lina is a fatherless, bullied teenager driven to distraction until she receives advice from a woman she meets through her mother, who works in the local psychiatric hospital.
Gustawsson’s magic is to weave together the lives of these three different women, all the while showing us the ways in which society has conspired to suppress and contain women until they have no choice but to protect themselves and the ones they love.
Though the times may be different, each of these women has been forced to the edge. It is not immediately clear how much we can trust each of them as narrators, but we watch with horror as they relate in the first person how they are drawn into black practices and dabble with the occult in an attempt to regain control over their own lives.
It is a feminist narrative that runs through each of these women’s stories and while we may not condone their actions, it is not difficult to understand what drives them.
We understand early on that these three women have a connection and it is fascinating trying to work out how each might relate to the other. This makes for a riveting and compelling read which is very dark and feels so menacing.
Verdict: Johana Gustawsson brilliantly ties these stories together in a masterclass of intricate plotting. Just when you think you have the measure of these women she pulls the rug out from under your feet and allows you to fall flat on your face. It’s an astonishing feat of ledgerdemain and it works beautifully. There’s a reason that Gustawsson is known as the Queen of French Noir and this is evident in spades in this fabulous dark and sinister novel that will have you gasping as the revelations come thick and fast towards the end. This is superb gothic drama from a writer at the top of her game.
Born in Marseille, France, and with a degree in Political Science, Johana Gustawsson has worked as a journalist for the French and Spanish press and television. Her critically acclaimed Roy & Castells series (Block 46, Keeper and Blood Song) has won the Plume d’Argent, Balai de la découverte, Balai d’Or and Prix Marseillais du Polar awards, and is now published in twenty-three countries. The third in the series, Blood Song, was longlisted for the CWA International Dagger. A TV adaptation is currently underway in a French, Swedish and UK co-production. Johana lives in London with her Swedish husband, and three young sons, and is currently working on the book four in the Roy & Castells series.