Source: Review copy
Publication: 22nd June 2023 from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review
Victorian England. A world of rural fairgrounds and glamorous London theatres. A world of dark secrets and deadly obsessions…
Twin sisters Keziah and Tilly Lovell are identical in every way, except that Tilly hasn’t grown a single inch since she was five. Coerced into promoting their father’s quack elixir as they tour the country fairgrounds, at the age of fifteen the girls are sold to a mysterious Italian known as ‘Captain’.
Theo is an orphan, raised by his grandfather, Lord Seabrook, a man who has a dark interest in anatomical freaks and other curiosities … particularly the human kind. Resenting his grandson for his mother’s death in childbirth, when Seabrook remarries and a new heir is produced, Theo is forced to leave home without a penny to his name.
Theo finds employment in Dr Summerwell’s Museum of Anatomy in London, and here he meets Captain and his theatrical ‘family’ of performers, freaks and outcasts.
But it is Theo’s fascination with Tilly and Keziah that will lead all of them into a web of deceits, exposing the darkest secrets and threatening everything they know…
Exploring universal themes of love and loss, the power of redemption and what it means to be unique, The Fascination is an evocative, glittering and bewitching gothic novel that brings alive Victorian London – and darkness and deception that lies beneath…
Essie Fox’s The Fascination is an exceptional, luscious, rich book of Dickensian proportions. It is fabulous and fantastical with vivid brilliantly drawn larger than life characters that really would not be out of place in a Dickens novel. This is a story that is so sumptuous and yet so visceral it leaves you feeling as if you know these characters.
I don’t want to talk much about the plot, which again would not be out of place in a Wilkie Collins or Dickens story. Fox transports us to Victorian England where we hear from Kezia in a first person narrative and also follow Theo in his journey. Theo lives with his grandfather, a surly man who who displays neither love nor affection and who has handed Theo’s upbringing over to a governess.
His grandfather is obsessed with his collection of objects which he keeps in a secret room. This is a strange and not altogether comfortable collection which comprises human and animal elements and seems to celebrate the abnormal. Theo has a strange reaction to seeing this collection; and it stays with him for the rest of his life.
Keziah and Tilly Lovell are sisters. Their mother is dead and their father a drunk. He is only interested in exploiting his daughters for the money they can earn for him. Keziah is the more practical sister but the girls are very close. And when their father’s cruel ways and blatant exploitation become too much for them, they determine to run away. For their father is using them to peddle fake medicine at fairs, a place where differences are always exploited and people pay for the privilege of seeing what is different and unexpected. This is the fascination – an appetite for viewing differences and oddities – from the grotesque to the merely unusual. So Keziah and Tilly join theatrical performers, bearded ladies and other characters whose features can be exploited for cash as they travel the country fairgrounds and theatres, selling their father’s fake elixir.
That’s where they first meet Theo who sees their plight and is determined to help them. Sadly, things don’t work out and the girls are sold by their father to ‘The Captain’ a man he meets at a fair.
All of these characters are so beautifully wrought and the addition of the Captain and his fellow travellers who are part of his family just makes this story richer and more fabulous. This collection of misfits have bonded and found their own path; one that celebrates who they are rather than exploiting it.
Essie Fox’s story is full of dark deeds and the most awful perversions. It is full of wickedness and evil and she writes such a tense and dramatic story that at times you hold your breath as that evil threatens to overpower all that is good. She creates such vivid pictures in your mind that you can see the action unfurl and feel the tension that abounds. Her language is powerful; her writing beautiful and the plotting immaculate. This is a gothic novel not to be missed.
Verdict: At its core, The Fascination is about understanding and accepting difference. It’s a celebration of what family really means. Multi-layered, haunting and immersive this is a tale of abject cruelty overcome by love and compassion. It is exceptional storytelling with vividly realised characters and a good helping of the grotesque. The Fascination does what it says in the title. It fascinates, it thrills, it scares and it is immensely moving. It is a wonderful wonder and I adored it.
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Essie Fox was born and raised in rural Herefordshire, which inspires much of her writing. After studying English Literature at Sheffield University, she moved to London where she worked for the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, then the book publishers George Allen & Unwin – before becoming self-employed in the world of art and design. Always an avid reader, Essie now spends her time writing historical gothic novels. Her debut, The Somnambulist, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards, and featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club. The Last Days of Leda Grey, set in the early years of silent film, was selected as The Times Historical Book of the Month. Her latest novel, The Fascination is based in Victorian country fairgrounds, the glamour of the London theatres, and an Oxford Street museum full of morbid curiosities. Essie is also the creator of the popular blog: The Virtual Victorian. She has lectured on this era at the V&A, and the National Gallery in London.