Top positive review
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an engrossing and atmospheric read
on 30 September 2013
The year is 1821 and governess Rachel Crofton, afraid that this may be her last such opportunity, finds herself accepting an offer of marriage from charming wine merchant, Richard Weekes. Rachel finds herself settling into her new quarters in Bath, eager to make her marriage a success. Soon, she is introduced to the Alleyns, old acquaintances of her husband's where she becomes employed as companion to the troubled and reclusive Jonathan; a man tormented by his memories of war and by the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart Alice. Indeed Alice seems to haunt the entire household almost; Rachel too soon drawn into the mystery of what really happened to her.
With each coming book, Webb seems only to go from strength to strength as an author, and the Misbegotten has to be my favourite to date. Unlike in her previous works, there is no modern time frame this time; but the story does still flit back and forth from 1821 to the early 1800s where we are introduced to Alice, ward of Lord Faukes, who has been brought up in a small village by the elderly Bridget and who takes in a young girl found wandering by the house one day as her sister, Starling.
This is a story rich in atmosphere and mystery, with a dark, gothic feel and secrets that are slow to reveal themselves, but rather tease and taunt, turning first one way and then the other. Set in 1800s Bath, Webb recreates the setting and period quite beautifully; reminiscent in some parts of a Jane Austen novel, though the content is far more haunting, and much grittier. Indeed Webb doesn't shy away from painting some truly horrifying scenes of life as a soldier in the Peninsular war, where Jonathan Alleyn once served and has since been driven almost mad by all that he saw and took part of. Nor does she glamorize the hardships of women's struggles, their lack of voice and freedom, their frightening reliance and dependency on the men in their lives, be it fathers, husbands, employers.
Her characters too are rich and, with perhaps one or two exceptions, never painted entirely black or white, but rather complex and ambiguous. The feisty Starling, with her relentless quest for the truth and justice over Alice's disappearance, and her carefully guarded vulnerabilities, was perhaps my favourite. I also loved the interactions between Rachel and Jonathan with his unpredictable moods; and how she gradually gains his trust, even though she cannot trust him herself.
I also have to say that some of Webb's descriptions are mesmerizing, and i found myself re-reading them, savouring her turn of words. The tension she creates through the novel is also gripping and builds to a climactic conclusion; my only criticism being that she strays into melodrama towards the end. A story that is at times brutal in its cruelty and sadness, this makes for an intense read, bittersweet and in places simply heart-rendering.