The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

crowThe Crow Garden is a wonderfully evocative novel that brings to us a gothic story set in Victorian England.  The story is positively bursting at the scenes with the trappings of a novel set in this era, asylums,  mad doctors, mesmerists, ghosts and pea soup fog, and yet the author manages to inject new life into those tropes by introducing such an unusual story and at the same time giving, to my mind, a nod to maybe a couple of the classics.  Wilkie Collins certainly sprang to mind whilst reading this – although I’m not suggesting that the story is the same in any way – more the style of writing somehow, not to mention the theme of women being closeted into asylums when they became problematic to their husbands.

At the start of the story we meet Nathaniel Kerner as he takes up his position at Crakethorne Asylum, a remote institution based in the wilds of Yorkshire.  Perhaps Nathaniel was naive in taking this position, if first impressions are anything to go by that is.  Crakethorne bares little resemblance to the material Nathaniel read prior to taking up his new role and his initial description puts you in mind of the foreboding Thornfield House from Jane Eyre.  Crakethorne is a dark and ominous building, built with grey stone with no embellishments to soften it’s demeanour, set in unkempt grounds that play home to the many crows that the book is named for it’s a place of howling winds and harsh treatments.  Small wonder that most of the inmates speak of ghosts.

Nathaniel is a man with his very own skeleton cupboard.  He blames himself for the death of his father and is determined to try and redeem himself by helping those in need.  His new ideas don’t sit too well with the asylum’s proprietor.  Dr Chettle is more interested in phrenology (study of skulls) and is more inclined to old fashioned methods for his inmates.  Chettle comes across initially as a bit preoccupied, maybe a bit crazy himself but as the book progresses his character definitely takes on a more sinister tone.  But, I get ahead of myself.

Nathaniel immediately takes on his roster of patients and we learn more from his journals.  One of his patients is a young woman called Mrs Harleston, a well to do young lady of society who seems to have become hysterical/delusional after experiencing an ‘episode’.  Her husband wants her ‘fixing’ and able to perform her wifely duties as soon as possible (he’s a real charmer for sure).  The young doctor finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with his new patient, he of course tells himself that she is a respectable woman, intelligent, fragile and of a standing that should dictate respectful treatment – lets just be honest though, she’s a very attractive woman and he is besotted.  His attempts to help Mrs Harleston become ever more desperate as he seeks to prevent Dr Chettle from using more drastic treatments and eventually he resorts to engaging a mesmerist, after which things go horribly wrong.

The writing is really strong.  I read this and could easily have thought I was reading a much older book – that’s how well the author captures the style and feel of Victorian England.  The story itself is a mystery, it has hints of the supernatural, although these could be easily explained as delusions, but, more than that it takes a good look at the treatment of women in a society where they were little more than belongings.  Quite shocking really, as was the treatment of those suffering from mental health issues.

In terms of the characters.  Well, they’re all a bit difficult to like to be brutally honest.  Nathaniel, well, I don’t suppose he’s a bad character as such but I wanted to slap him, more often than not.  He’s from the school of thought that ‘women don’t know what’s best for them’ and lets just be blunt, he’s not really being very professional now is he – it’s as clear as the nose on your face that he has feelings for Mrs Harleson and added to that is the feeling that, to my mind, he wasn’t really intent on helping her.  Deep down I think he wanted to keep her where she was.  Mrs Harleson, well, at first I’m going to say I didn’t like her.  Even after finishing and thinking about the novel some more I would say she’s manipulative, but then, on reflection, she lives in a society where she has no say, her husband can have her committed to an asylum at the drop of a hat and she’s basically at the whim of men who are determined to call her insane whether she is or not.  With that in mind, well, I find her actions a lot more easy to understand.  Sorry to be a bit mysterious but I’m trying to avoid spoilers.

Settings.  Well, we start off with the asylum which is wonderfully conjured and as events progress we move to London where the streets are thick with fog.  Victorian London has become enamoured with illusionists and Nathaniel finds himself drawn into the spiritualist circles and ultimately led to a new performer at the Egyptian Hall.

In terms of criticisms.  Well, I found myself quite engrossed with this book and it definitely worked it’s charm on me but, I felt like the two different settings were a little disjointed.  That’s probably not very well explained, All I can say is that the change from one setting to the other felt hastily drawn and not as well thought out as the proceeding or following chapters.  I also felt like the ending was a little bit rushed when compared to the pacing for the rest of the story and this just made me feel as though I’d missed something or that maybe something had been cut from the story.  I would also mention that if you have a penchant for fast moving action stories then this doesn’t really fall into that bracket.

Overall though I really enjoyed this.  A story of deception, secrets, lies and the slow descent into madness.  As I mentioned it has a tone reminiscent of the classics.  Collins, Dickens and from amongst more contemporary authors Hill and Waters.  Beautifully written and wonderfully evocative.  A real thought provoker that calls to mind the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’.


I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.


18 Responses to “The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood”

  1. Tammy

    Stories set in asylums usually creep me out, and this one sounds good, and perfect for this time of year😀

    • @lynnsbooks

      I had a couple of minor issues with this but overall I really enjoyed it – the swap from asylum to city felt a bit jarring for example – but, overall I thought what the author did here was really good.
      Lynn 😀

  2. Barb (boxermommyreads)

    This is one I’m really looking forward to. Sounds like you picked it up at the right time. Great review.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yeah, I definitely think this could be a mood book – not to mention seasonal. I loved the feel of this, I thought the writing was excellent – she’s managed to really hit that classic gothic feel which I really appreciate. I’m not saying that I didn’t have a couple of issues but overall this was good.
      Lynn 😀

  3. lipsyy

    Love the sound of this one. Great review 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      It was very good with a great old fashioned/classic vibe.
      Lynn 😀

  4. jessicabookworm

    I love the sound of the setting and style – sounds perfect for this time of year – but a shame about the characters; I do struggle if there isn’t even one character to like and/or root for.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Well, on reflection I think it’s easier to cotton on to the female and to understand her motives. The young doctor is just very naive – I’m sure he wouldn’t have been so gentle with this particular patient if she wasn’t so easy on the eye. A good read though and definitely with Wilkie Collins undertones which i enjoyed.
      Lynn 😀

  5. sjhigbee

    I’ve met Alison and she’s a really nice person – and heard her read an extract of one of her books and she certainly writes very well. Thank you for a great review:)

    • @lynnsbooks

      I’ve only read this but I also have The Hidden People which I’m going to also give a shot now.
      Lynn 😀

      • sjhigbee

        I wait to hear what you think about it:)

  6. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    This sounds a lot better than the Alison Littlewood novel I read, The Hidden People. That one was kind of meh, but I haven’t given up on the author yet. I might just add this one to the list!

    • @lynnsbooks

      Maybe she’s an acquired taste – I should pick up the Hidden People and see how it compares. She’s definitely a slow builder but I liked that this had such an old fashioned feel to it. Really put me in mind of Wilkie Collins.
      Lynn 😀

  7. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    It’s interesting that this story is so steeped into the historical period it describes that it seems to refuse to bow to more “modern” concepts – hence the main character’s thoughts about women, or the lady being manipulative. These are elements that can rub us the wrong way now, but I suspect they add to the flavor of this novel.
    Very, very intriguing… Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yes exactly, this is definitely ‘steeped’ in the period – which I think is great. There’s definitely nods to some classics in here and I’m so glad that the author didn’t decide to make this a Victorian story but with contemporary protagonists – she’s really played on the way things really were.
      Lynn 😀

  8. Jennifer | Book Den

    This sounds a bit creepy. 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      It’s probably not as creepy as some of the horror/chillers these days, although I’m saying that as though this is an old book, and it isn’t! It just has a period feel so if you enjoyed The Woman In White or even some of Sarah Waters writing like Little Hand then that would give you an idea of the style from this one.
      Lynn 😀

  9. October : My Month in Review | Books and travelling with Lynn

    […] The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood […]

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