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.


Waiting on Wednesday: The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that was created by Breaking the Spine.  Every Wednesday we highlight a book that we’re really looking forward to.  This week my book is : The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood:

crowgarden‘There’s an amazing sense of place and time in this novel, as Littlewood perfectly captures the literary style, attitudes, and class consciousness of Victorian England’ – Publishers Weekly Susan Hill meets Alfred Hitchcock in Alison Littlewood’s latest chiller: mad-doctor Nathaniel is obsessed with the beautiful Mrs Harleston – but is she truly delusional? Or is she hiding secrets that should never be uncovered …? Haunted by his father’s suicide, Nathaniel Kerner walks away from the highly prestigious life of a consultant to become a mad-doctor. He takes up a position at Crakethorne Asylum, but the proprietor is more interested in phrenology and his growing collection of skulls than the patients’ minds. Nathaniel’s only interesting case is Mrs Victoria Harleston: her husband accuses her of hysteria and delusions – but she accuses him of hiding secrets far more terrible. Nathaniel is increasingly obsessed with Victoria, but when he has her mesmerised, there are unexpected results: Victoria starts hearing voices, the way she used to – her grandmother always claimed they came from beyond the grave – but it also unleashes her own powers of mesmerism …and a desperate need to escape. Increasingly besotted, Nathaniel finds himself caught up in a world of seances and stage mesmerism in his bid to find Victoria and save her. But constantly hanging over him is this warning: that doctors are apt to catch the diseases with which they are surrounded – whether of the body or the mind.

Due October 2017