Edward Fraser is, in spite of his youth, something of a dry old stick so when his closest friend at Oxford University, Stephen Chapman, lets his medical studies take second place to his volunteer work at a shelter for fallen women Edward is understandably concerned. Even worse, the main attraction in this line of work for Stephen appears to be the lady who runs the shelter - Diana Pelham - someone Edward suspects, with very strong reason, of having a rather shady past herself. The thing is, are Edward's fears for his friend justified or does he simply want to keep Stephen to himself and away from the lures of attractive females? Where exactly do his interests and motives lie? Edward isn't quite the straight-forward narrator he seems and while Diana Pelham clearly has a secret to hide is she wicked or merely misunderstood?
The Whores' Asylum is the first novel by Katy Darby and all in all it has quite a lot going for it. The action sequences, and the moments which have a touch of the macabre and the surreal in particular are all well handled. The book features an enraged bear dressed in a sort of harlequin outfit and kept prisoner in a cellar; it has scenes of shabby well-to-do men wearing masks and making free with ladies of the night in plush, velvet-draped rooms and it has, best of all to my mind, a description of a duel taking place one foggy morning which packs a real emotional punch; but where, for me, the book suffers slightly is with the pacing. I suspect the novel could lose twenty pages or so and would, if some of the descriptions of what the characters were thinking and feeling emotionally were slightly pared back, rattle along all the better for it. The charcters themselves however are engaging - Edward Fraser the old before his time theology student with a distrust of Diana Pelham that may, or may not, be justified is a wonderful creation and some of the minor characters such as Sukey the abused and betrayed woman who comes good in the end are highly likeable and engaging. The descriptions of the run-down area of Jericho are also suitably atmospheric - at times as heros, villains and imperilled ladies chase each other back and forth through the shadowy, low-life strewn streets the book almost reads like a Sherlock Holmes story transferred from London to Oxford - and there is enough incidental detail to give a real feeling of the late Victorian era.
In a way there is hardly a dearth of fiction set during the Victorian era but even so this is a welcome addition to the well-stocked shelves. What it may lack in terms of depth (it doesn't have quite the same level of emotional intensity as, say, 'The Crimson Petal and the White' or Sarah Waters's 'Affinity') it more than makes up for in well-drawn characters and exciting set-pieces. It's a promising debut and Katy Darby is definitely an author to watch out for in the future. Highly enjoyable.
One final point - almost as an aside. The book itself as a physical object is rather lovely. The cover illustration is delightful and the covers themselves have an embossed feel to them that gives the illusion that the covers are made of cloth. In an age where content is all and where text can be downloaded to e-readers in seconds it's rather encouraging to see such a beautifully produced bookjacket, especially for a first-time novelist.
on 5 March 2012
I was utterly fascinated by this book, could barely put it down and was looking for excuses where possible to find more time to read.
A book written in five parts, each part giving additional angles to the underlying story, but from a different protagonist. In every part of the book you feel sympathetic to the current protagonist, you share their opinion and heartache, trouble, worries, fear. It's an amazing example of how the same story can appear completely different depending on who tell it. But each part doesn't just repeat the same story over and over again but gives more depth to the reader's understanding of motives, history etc.
Truly amazing book that will stay on my bookshelf and that I will no doubt read again!
on 20 March 2012
This is a compelling story set mostly in the wrong side of Victorian Oxford. One of our main viewpoints through which the story is told is a rather prudish academic priest, and his voice is convincing enough that I found myself utterly involved in the story and somewhat genuinely annoyed with some of the characters - it's not often a book draws me in so well. It's not necessarily a light read ... many sections are rather exacting in their detail ... but I never felt like the story dragged. If you've enjoyed stories like Sarah Walter's Fingersmith, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, or Gormenghast, then I highly recommend this. An easy five stars.
on 22 February 2012
I read this gripping novel almost in one sitting; I curled upon a wet winter Sunday and disappeared into Ms Darby's world. And it's not a comfortable world, full of vice, disease, betrayal and not-so-righteous anger, shot through with veiled horror.
I really enjoyed the way the story unfolded piece by piece, one contradictory narrative following another so that the reader is drawn in to make judgements, piecing together the full picture from clues and hints.
It's a wonderfully dark story, richly evocative of the seedy Victorian underworld. I particularly admired the way Ms Darby dissects her characters' outmoded attitudes and mores without ever judging them by 21st century standards. She leaves the reader to do that, and the impact of the story is much stronger because of it.
This is an odd book in many ways; it certainly didn’t play out the way I had expected when I picked it up to read. Starting off as the story of Edward Fraser, a memoir he has written for his son who is now (1914) away in the War, it starts in 1895 when Fraser is starting at Oxford. There he meets his room-mate and soon-to-be best friend, Stephen Chapman, and their lives move steadily through their years at Oxford. But their views on life are widely different, as Fraser is of a theological and philosophical bent, whereas Chapman is studying medicine, and his decision to dedicate his career to the study and cure of diseases which are not talked about in polite society in the early 1900s causes them both to reconsider their relationship and the possibility of their remaining friends and comrades.
The book is divided into five main sections, and in those sections a part of the story is told from the perspective of five different characters, whose lives and interactions with both Chapman and Fraser are destined to test not only their friendship, but their whole outlook on life. It was when it got to the fourth section, which tells a part of Stephen Chapman’s story, that I began to wonder whether I was still reading the same book, as the narrative seemed to have shifted from an Edwardian tale to a ‘gothic’ tale designed to make the beating hearts of young women of a delicate persuasion thump even harder. Such decadence, such immorality, such scandal and debauchery, you’ve never heard the like, my dear!
I read to the end of the book, interested to see where the narrative went, and I’m not sorry I read it. But it did seem to lose sight part way through of what it wanted to be, and veered off wildly off a clear path into the weeds and undergrowth, as it were. This was a readable story, which could have been much better if perhaps it had not taken itself quite so seriously as a tale of warning and an indictment of immoral behaviours. It would have been better perhaps also if Fraser had not seemed to be such an “insufferable prig” (an expression, I believe, suitable to the times of which the book is written), and the reader could have had more empathy for the characters and their trials. Not bad, but not great.
Uncritical maybe, but there really was nothing I didn't like about this one - read it in a couple of sittings and was totally absorbed by Kate Darby's brilliant portrayal of the seamier side of Victorian life. I thought the structure worked really well - I liked the separate stories revealing part of the narrative through writings left behind. I thought Edward Fraser was a wonderful character, and a distinctive voice, with his absolute sense of moral rectitude justifying every action. There's enough mystery and melodrama to keep you turning the pages, boo-hiss villains, hopeless love and tarts with a heart to satisfy anyone - and you can smell the streets and feel the damp, the writing's of a very high quality. Fans of Sarah Waters will love this one, an accomplished debut.
It looks so pretty but the contents... are not egregiously bad, but they're not very good, either. The Whore's Asylum tries awfully hard but the plot is thin and the necessary padding not up to the mark.
The first half is the best. Fraser and Chapman are decently-drawn characters, and though the laboured style does its best to kill the thing, it rolls along at a steady pace. The epistolary, exposition-packed second half seemed dreadfully long and so slow and tedious, it took every ounce of energy in me to keep turning the pages.
The relationship between Fraser and Chapman - that is the very heart of the tale - failed to convince me. Their growth of their friendship is dealt with so quickly - as if the author was bored by this very necessary scene-setting, only wanting to get on to the fraught tale of Diana - it just didn't develop at all for me, and it is so central to the plot! I feel it would have made for a much better tale if more of the time that was spent on those dreadful dreary letters at the end was given to developing the details of their friendship, and because I wasn't persuaded that Fraser and Chapman had grown so close, it made Fraser's violent reaction to his friend's engagement seem ludicrous, and Chapman's response completely over the top.
At least Fraser and Chapman were solid, workmanlike characters, Diana was not, she was, throughout, a device. Lord `Lucky' was just ridiculous; an evilly-chortling, moustache-twirling Dick Dastardly (and not in a good way!). His melodramatic dénouement was especially absurd, certainly worthy of the purplest of Victorian prose. Maybe that was the point? But if it was intended as a clever parody, it didn't work; it made me giggle uncontrollably, which I'm pretty sure was not the intention.
And what was the point of the illustrations? They weren't needed and not well done, very out of keeping with the writing style - which squeezed itself through terrible hoops to stay `in character'. They reminded me of picture-plates from the comics and books I read when I was nine years old; they seemed very out-of-place and silly.
In short, I read a book like this to be entertained, and I wasn't. The plot was unconvincing and the prose so desperately dull, it was an epic struggle to finish.
on 13 February 2012
Set in the late 1800's , the storyline is set around three main characters who have different backgrounds, breeding and beliefs. The book had me enthralled within the first few pages due to the air of mystery that was created.
The characters are vividly described and the attention to detail of the settings, language used and etiquette is superb. The story is based on two scholars, one for the priesthood and one training to become a doctor in pathology. During his training to become a doctor he is given the chance to study on live cases who are working girls and are suffering from venereal diseases. This appeals to him very strongly but when he tries to explain this to his friend, who is studying for the priesthood, conflict of interests arise. The priest-to-be is appalled and horrified that the doctor could cure the girls so they could go back to plying their immoral trade.
On his research at the Asylum the doctor falls in love with the woman who runs the shelter. When his trainer cannot attend a ball he gives the doctor the two tickets and he takes his priest friend. On arriving at the ball he sees his lover in the arms of another man and the priest recognises her from his past life.
The author then relates each of the characters stories, the trainee priest, the trainee doctor and the madam. As each of the story unfolds, you find yourself drawn further into the book, sensing how each character is feeling and understanding the motives for their beliefs, some of which are still poignant today as we judge people we do not know without really getting to know them. The difference between the classes are a major issue in this book, how the rich live and dominate, the students living in squalor and struggling to survive and finally the working class who have to make ends meet in anyway.
When you read this book you will find yourself challenging your thoughts and beliefs. As each story gets further down the line, the mysterious air and lives of each of the characters still remains and it is not until right at the end of the story you get the full picture.
The period of the storyline is one of my favourites in history and is excellently represented and anyone who enjoys historic novels must read this book.
on 5 February 2012
The cover caught my eye first. It was so very vivid, and so very Victorian.
Inside I found a letter. A letter written in 1914. A letter from a dying father to his son.
"Six months ago I would not have had you know anything that might distress you; but you are a man now, and have seen blood and killing, and death at Marne, and at Ypres, more than I ever did or hope to; and you deserve to know the truth about myself, your mother, and your namesake, Stephen Chapman, the best and bravest friend I ever had."
The truth was set out in five documents, and some ephemera.
In 1887 Edward Fraser, Cambridge graduate who has chosen to continue his theological studies at Oxford, shared rooms with Stephen Chapman, a medical student. The two men were very different, but they became close friends.
Edward was concerned when Stephen began to starts to work a shelter for fallen women. And his concern grew when he found that Stephen was falling for Diana, the lady who ran the shelter.
Edward had known Diana in Cambridge and her behaviour, and the dramatic events that ensued, gave him good reason to be wary of her.
And so the question was posed - who was Diana?
Was she an evil schemer? Was she a fallen woman who had risen? Or was she a good woman who had been terribly wronged?
The answer comes in the last of the fifth document. Diana, fearing that she will die in childbirth, sets down her extraordinary story for her unborn child ...
Katy Darby writes wonderfully readable prose. She brings Victorian England to life, and paints vivid pictures of dark streets and of the dark side of high society.
I saw thrilling set-pieces, high drama, great revelations. I saw a rich cast of intriguing - and ambiguous - characters.I was captivated as the different elements of the story unfolded, but I do that it had been told differently.
The use of letters and documents works for some stories, but it also consigns them to the past. This is a story that would have gained so much if only it had been allowed to live and breathe. I wanted to meet Diana, not just to be told about her, not just to read her words.
The Whores' Asylum is a fine entertainment, but I'm just a little disappointed because I saw the potential for more. Maybe I'll find it in whatever Katy Darby writes next ...
Set in the late Victorian period, The Whore's Asylum is a story told from more than one view point, its three main protagonists Edward Fraser, a rather moralistic young man who is almost pious to a great fault, his friend and companion Stephen Chapman, a whore's doctor and a woman, Diana Cornell that runs a place for fallen women.
The book is listed as being a tragedy in five parts and it is set out in five books, telling the story of the main characters as well as other people involved.
The story is told mostly from Edward Fraser's POV and starts with him writing an account of events from the past to his son. Fraser is in poor health and wishes to make his son aware of things from his past.
The story is written in a very unsentimental style, which is not a bad thing and I think it could appeal to men as well as women because of that. You feel annoyance at times at the principle character Edward Fraser for his unrelenting sense of right and wrong and the inability to see beyond that and judge people accordingly. it is only through a series of events that his manner is softened, although his affection for his friend Stephen Chapman is his saving grace.
The harsh realities of the seedy area of Oxford, nicknamed "Jericho" are painted in the book, although as more of a backdrop of where most of the story takes place than to add to it. By the time you have finished, you have a very different view of the character from when you set out on their journey. It is a tale of hardship, love and reality of the times.
To be honest, it took me at least a 100 pages in before the story really grabbed me, although it was well written, it had rather a slow pace to it. I liked it, but found it a bit of a plod in places and it was not until the last 100 pages or so that I found it hard to put down so I could get to the conclusion of the tale.