35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 23 May 2011
Essie Fox's beautiful writing takes the reader by the hand, leading, like the somnabulist of the title, through a dream-like journey from London to Herefordshire and back again. From the gritty urban streets of Victorian Bow to a large haunting country estate, we follow Phoebe Turner as her life begins to unravel. Each page brings new mysteries that lure us in to the increasingly Gothic world that Essie Fox has created.
I was utterly gripped by the story, and found the book hard to put down. The contemporary details have been throughly researched, from the sights and sounds of Wilton's Music Hall to the landscape and furnishings of the large stately home. Phoebe's fear and emotions are well conveyed, as are the moral and religious sentiments of late Victorian England. Each character is fully realized, obliging sympathy even where their passions override their sanity.
The Somnambulist has all the dark moodiness and dreamy madness of a true Victorian Gothic tale, but is grounded with a 21st century wisdom towards issues like racism and mental health.
Overall, this novel takes on a classic genre to create a unique masterpiece of 21st century Gothic writing.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I'm a big fan both of Victoriana and Gothic novels so I was really looking forward to reading `The Somnambulist.' The story is fairly familiar; a young and innocent girl ends up living away from her stifling mother as the companion of a frail and wealthy wife of a businessman. So far so good and all the archetypal characters are present and correct; a mother who has been in mourning for many years, a haughty and wealthy heir to the family fortune, a mysterious butler.
Whilst I found the book quite enjoyable, I couldn't help comparing it to those it had obviously been influenced by: Jane Eye; Wuthering Heights; The Castle of Otranto; Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Mysteries of Udolpho and so on and sadly it just doesn't compare. I have to agree with some of the other reviewers that there were quite a lot of incongruities both in language and behaviour and whereas the great Gothic novels hint at what is happening (and therefore create suspense and horror because of the detail that is left to the imagination) The Somnambulist practically bangs you over the head with explicit and unpleasant detail.
This will pass a few hours and was enjoyable enough but I've seen it done better by other modern authors, such as Michael Faber, or I would go back and rediscover your Gothic classics!
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on 29 February 2012
I wanted to like this book. It seemed to promise so much, a Gothic tale of dark secrets and mystery.
Unfortunately, it failed to live up to its promise.
I won't precis the whole story here, as other reviewers have done that. Suffice to say, 17 year old heroine lives with awful Mother and lovely Aunt, until Aunt dies, and then Things Happen.
My main gripe is that the whole thing is so dull. The characters are dreary and formulaic; Mother has to be awful and religious, Aunt has to be free spirited, heroine has to be rebellious, mystery man's wife has to be mad etc. But worse than this it was just hard work reading the book. The language was way too overdone and clunky, you were always aware that you were reading, whereas with the best books, you are so into the story that you are not aware you are sat there reading - it's just all going on in your mind. With this book, I felt too bogged down with the language and the structure and the rather weak plotting.
And the central character, Phoebe, was a miserable little Madam. Come to think of it, they were all a pretty joyless bunch!
As I say, hard work.
So much so that, half way through, I realised I didn't care about any of them and didn't care what was going to happen to any of them.
So I gave it up, which I very rarely do. In this case, I felt there were much better books out there.
35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 25 May 2011
I am so pleased that The Sonambulist caught my eye. It is a lovely piece of Victoriana, and a quite wonderful debut novel.
I fell in love with the heroine. Phoebe Turner was just seventeen years old, and she was warm bright and thoughtful. In some ways she was very mature for her years, but in others she was very innocent, and as I learned more of her background I could understand why.
Phoebe grew up, in the East End of London, with her mother and her aunt. Maud, her mother, was a member of The Hallelujah Army, set upon promoting that society's ideals and protecting her daughter from the many evils of the world. Those evils included the music hall where her sister, Phoebe's Aunt Cissy sang ...
Essie Fox paints Phoebe's world wonderfully. There is a wealth of detail that brings the streets, the homes, and most of all the music hall, to life. She clearly has so much knowledge and love, but she wears it lightly and it brings the story to life quite wonderfully.
And it was clear that there was a story to be told, and secrets to be uncovered.
Phoebe loved her aunt and her aunt's theatrical friends, and she was devastated when Cissy, suddenly, died. Maude was devastated too, at having to cope without the income that Cissy earned for the household, and she struggled. Maybe that was why she accepted an offer from Mr Samuels, a wealthy friend of Cissy's who she had always treated with disdain, for Phoebe to become the companion of his invalid wife ...
And so the story opened up. There were more wonderful pictures of another, very different, aspect of Victorian England. And there were more vivid, complex characters to meet. Phoebe knew that she would miss her home and her loved ones, but she was curious about what lay ahead. I felt just the same.
Phoebe travelled to a grand estate in Hertfordshire. Dinwood Court was a splendid gothic mansion, set in magnificent countryside, but both house and occupants were haunted by the strange death of Esther, the young daughter of the house ...
At Dinwood Court I heard the echoes of other novels of Victorian England. They were lovely to hear, and I realised that Essie Fox had wonderful influences, influences that she had acknowledged and then taken to make something new of her own.
I loved watching Phoebe as she uncovered the secrets of the past, and as she learned and grew up.
The plotting was very clever and, though I worked out some of the things that would happen, others took me by surprise. In particular, the concluding chapters took the story in a direction that I hadn't expected at all, but a direction that was completely right.
That kept the pages turning, and so did the lovely writing, the pitch perfect characters and settings, the wealth of knowledge that underpinned the story, and that very clever theme set in the title that wrapped around everything.
The Sonambulist is a wonderful debut novel, intelligent and so very readable.
I am already looking forward to whatever Essie Fox writes next.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 26 June 2011
I love this era and can see how meticulously researched the period detail is - and how much the author really cares about ensuring that, although her characters may be 'sleepwalking' through their lives, the reader can almost taste the sense of being in this Victorian world: some lovely descriptive scenes that stand assuredly alongside the best in other Victorian novels. I especially loved the stone angels in the foggy graveyard with its 'fingers of smoke tracing the names of the dead, where smog-blackened graves sprouted out of the ground: a giant's monstrous, mouldering teeth'. I am definitely now going to have to visit Bow Cemetery...
It's a tale of tragic loss, of love and of secrets - SO very redolent of the Victorian era when so much (especially sexuality) had to be hidden. The book beautifully marries this emphasis on outward respectability with the realities of lives lived behind the curtains, whilst weaving in glorious scenes of the world of the music hall where artifice and smoke-and-mirrors enthralled the masses as much as the table-rappers in the seances. I was surprised by the existence of opera at the music halls, and one such tragic opera proves a worthy backdrop throught out as Essie Fox's characters move through their lives, sometimes awake to the realities, sometimes stepping as if in a dream towards the precipices awaiting them - just like the Millais painting of the somnambulist quoted as an inspiration. I don't want to say any more or I might risk giving away the storyline, but suffice it to say that once you have opened the book and tuned out your own reality, you won't want to put it down until you finish reading.
on 1 January 2013
Review: I'm not really a fan of gothic horror so I could have done without some of the more supernatural elements of the plot but they weren't such a major part that they spoiled the story for me.
The combination of the music hall storyline and the young girl living with a variety of people involved in bringing her up reminded me a lot of Ballet Shoes which is one of my favourite books. This is obviously aimed at an older audience but I do think that the similarities are there.
I thought that the story was fairly predictable, although I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, sometimes it is nice to read an old fashioned type of story where you know what is going to happen.
I was disappointed with the incest plot though, and the fact that there wasn't a happier ending for the family. Having read the Mortal Instruments books fairly recently I have reached my tolerance for incest stories, which wasn't high in the first place. I can understand why someone would write a story about incest but I can't understand why someone would ruin a perfectly normal story or romance with the suggestion of incest. If it hadn't been for that I would have liked the book better than I did.
I thought that this was a nice and enjoyable book and I would read more books by the author but I don't think that there's anything particularly special about it.
Favourite character: Phoebe Turner
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
This book covers the story of Phoebe Turner, a young woman who lives with her puritanical mother, and her glamorous singer aunt, Cissy. To say much more would give away key facts about the story, but it's basically about Phoebe finding out who she really is.
This is quite a classic style Victorian gothic novel, with the ubiquitous seances that seem to pop up in every Victorian story, together with music halls, a painting by a Pre-Raphaelite, and a good dose of melodrama.
I felt it got off to a slow start, but picked up again and then dipped to the point where I was quite bored by it and wanted it to end. It's a book of ups and downs for me, as I enjoyed some parts and not others. I don't think it's a particularly strong story really, and it maybe lacked something because it was all in the first person, so lost a bit of the emotion.
It wasn't a total disaster for me, hence the three stars, but certainly not a book I would rave about.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 30 May 2011
I was looking forward to reading The Somnambulist because I'm partial to a bit of Victorian gothic however I was little disappointed.
Seventeen year old Phoebe Turner lives with her fanatically religious and frankly deeply unpleasant mother Maud and her beautiful Aunt Cissy in London's East End. Aunt Cissy is a music hall star with dark secrets in her past. When Cissy dies unexpectedly and Phoebe and her mother are left without means of support Phoebe goes to Herefordshire to act as a ladies companion to Mrs Samuels, the wife of Cissy's old flame, Nathaniel Samuels. In Herefordshire Phoebe encounters more dark secrets and lies.
The story promises mystery, madness and murder so I was geared up for some Victorian sensation however the story turned out to be slow going with very little interest. The secrets are quite transparent and much of Cissy's dark past is obvious from the beginning. I didn't really feel that involved with any of the characters and the gothic atmosphere I expected was sadly lacking. I didn't get a feel for the music hall scenes in London and I didn't get the gothic suspense I would expect from a ghostly Victorian country house story.
It seems a shame because this was a story which could have been much better if it wasn't so formulaic. It seems that the author wanted to cram the story full of everything Victorian, from the bustling London streets, to the music halls, to a dark gothic country mansion but failed to explore any of them to their full potential.
Overall it's a fair first novel but it wasn't as good as I was expecting or as good as I was hoping.
on 9 April 2013
I feel mean giving this book only three stars, as there's much to enjoy about this book (even if it's derivative at times, bringing to mind the ideas of Sarah Waters and Joanne Harris's novel, 'Sleep, Pale Sister') and the writer has clearly worked hard and has a genuine passion for the Gothic genre and the Victorian background. Alas, the plotting is all over the place, and the novel would have benefited from some re-structuring. Everything was going well up until page 186 and then it all fell apart in a confused ramble, all mystery dissipated with an ill-judged 'reveal' that came far too early on in the book. Like many first-time novelists, Ms Fox has tried to cram too much in and the services of an experienced editor wouldn't have come amiss. Personally, I think the sections of the book seen through the viewpoint of Nathaniel Samuels are a huge mistake; it would have been far better to have kept the reader guessing about him until the end. There's also a considerable amount of meandering in the second half of the book, and it becomes very unfocused. Still, if I hadn't read this book, I would never have known that feathers were forbidden at Jewish graves (a fascinating fact I've been unable to substantiate anywhere else.)
on 9 November 2015
Phoebe is 17 and has lived a fairly sheltered life in the Victorian East End. Her father is dead and her mother, an avowed member of a religious group, shares her house with her sister Cissy, a former singer. Phoebe is close to Cissy and accompanies her to Wilton's Music Hall where Cissy comes out of retirement to perform once more and Phoebe is ropes in to help out. After this Cissy dies and Phoebe is forced to become a 'companion' to Mrs Samuels, a rich but sickly woman. Life for Phoebe is never the same again.
Without giving away too much of the plot, this is a pastiche of a high-Victorian gothic novel which links madness, death and the supernatural very well. The only discordant note for me was the continued emphasis on sex, and the consequences. Others have claimed the book as dull, I enjoyed the creation of a strong sense of atmosphere. Whilst the plot seems obvious and a little overwrought, it mirrors the convoluted plots and motifs of the genre it is trying to emulate. Essie Fox is obviously a devotee of the Victorian and that makes this book both a true homage and also a great read on its own.