Published before Joanne Harris became famous, this work is the darkest of hers yet.
I wonder if she lightened up her style to be more commercial, as this bears little resemblance to Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters... or Chocolat.
In brief, before going any further, I rate this the best book she has written.
In more detail, then:
Told from the point of view of multiple narrators, (a style Irvine Welsh has excelled in) two of them men (and very convincing they are, too. I found myself checking the title page to reassure myself this was a Joanne Harris novel, so thoroughly masculine were the male characters' voices) the plot, in its complexity and bleak darkness, while not in voice, language or period, could be measured against an Irvine Welsh story.
Set in Victorian England, it tells the story of a wealthy middle aged painter who marries a beautiful girl of seventen whom he has been grooming (shades of Moliere's Ecole de Femmes here) since she was eleven.
He has a murky, shameful past, however, and it is going to catch up with him, through the hands of a bohemian woman with mystical powers and a Byron-esque fellow painter with dishonourable designs on his ethereally beautiful wife.
The pace picks up at a constant rate throughout the book, so the reader is galloping along and defying anyone to interrupt as s/he approaches the denouement.
Love, obsession, sex, dark magic, hypocrisy, murder and death in general drive the plot along.
Buy it, borrow it,steal it!