THE WHISPERING MUSE by Laura Purcell (BOOK REVIEW)
“You see, now, the beauty of tragedy? It has so many faces. Not all doom and gloom but nobility, honour and a hundred other qualities. You may laugh at a comedy, but you’ll forget it in time. Tragedy has burrs. It sticks to your heart. You remember what it made you feel, always.”
The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell is a gothic tale of ambition, greed and betrayal.
Though this is my first novel by Purcell, I can clearly see why she is highly praised as the master of haunting tales. This was an absolutely delicious read.
Let Purcell enter us into the dark world of the theatre, where the price of success and fame may be too high to pay. Our main protagonist is Jenny Wilcox, who after being fired from her previous place of employment is hired by Mrs Dyer, wife to the owner of The Mercury theatre in London’s West End, to dress their leading lady Lilith, who’ll play Lady Macbeth in their first ever production of Macbeth. It seems like a dream job, one which will pay a life changing sum of money and finally lift Jenny and her siblings out of poverty. Though, as with anything which seems too good to be true, there is a catch. Mrs Dyer also hires Jenny to spy on Lilith as she suspects she holds some scandalous secrets involving her husband. It isn’t long before Jenny becomes embroiled in an escalating plot of revenge orchestrated by her employer and also must manage Lilith’s ravings of the deal she has made with Melpomene, the tragic Greek Muse. Jenny doesn’t believe in curses, ghosts nor Greek muses, but as dreadful events surrounding the theatre begin to unfold, her reasoning wavers. What once felt like a dream soon transforms into a nightmare.
Purcell’s prose is wonderfully precise, from the onset there is an easily immersive flow to Jenny’s first person narration, compelling us to learn more about her life and of those she meets along the way. However as the novel progresses the prose fittingly becomes lyrical, atmospheric and razor sharp when the more unsettling scenes play out.
“As I watched her, washed in that red light, I almost believed that Melpomene was on her way. Every beat of the drum was a footstep.
A tremor shook Lilith’s frame. Her eyes flew open, fixed and staring at the gallery. The audience looked over their shoulders. Did she see something we couldn’t?”
Every aspect of this novel fantastically brings the Victorian theatre scene to life, with Purcell revelling in the gothic and macabre. Firstly, the book is segmented into five Acts, each one revolving around a different play production at the Mercury and each play mirroring aspects of our characters’ lives as they unravel. We aptly begin with Macbeth, which sets the dark, treacherous and otherworldly stage of our novel. Purcell also plays with theatrical superstitions and the belief of Macbeth being a cursed play. The actors and stage-hands dare not say the play’s name and when Jenny does this foreshadows the impending doom which is certain to come. Throughout the reader is skilfully put on edge, a tension looms, yet whether a supernatural force is at hand remains tantalisingly ambiguous, keeping me hooked at every turn of the page. However, before we even reach the gruesome events we become tangled into the drama of these character’s personal affairs.
Jenny Wilcox is a character you immediately feel sympathy towards, she is desperate, selfless and therefore easily manipulated. Her life has clearly not been easy, abandoned by her father and left in debt by her brother, Jenny must provide for her younger siblings, one of whom has a disability. With very little choices in life for an unmarried woman, she makes do with whatever coin she can earn. It’s easy to see why she agrees to Mrs Dyer’s offer, even when her requests become increasingly immoral. Lilith, though more complexly flawed, brazen and more ambitious than Jenny, also comes across as desperate. The way Lilith clings to the idea of Melpomene and her promise of all her desires coming true, shows us that she is desperate too but not just for wealth. Lilith is lonely and is seeking love and adoration by any means necessary.
“People always said there was a fine line between genius and madness. Lilith had been walking it like a tightrope for too long. Perhaps I’d pushed her off the edge.”
Mrs Dyer is an interesting character, on the surface she appears the victim, an unloved wife whose husband frivolously spends her wealth, a woman scorned who desperately wants to protect her daughter and seeks a confidant in Jenny. Though her actions are not quite genuine, her jealousy permeates and her generosity towards Jenny only signals manipulation, her kindness causing Jenny guilt and a sense that she owes Mrs Dyer a great debt. Mrs Dyer claims that Lilith is the deceiver, the thorn in her side, yet Mrs Dyer is also Jenny’s thorn. Mrs Dyer is ruthless and is arguably more akin to Lady Macbeth than Lilith is. Yet perhaps in a patriarchal society these three women need a touch of Lady Macbeth in them just to survive.
“Deep down, I was every bit as sentimental and self-deceiving as Mrs Dyer herself. For I wanted her to be the kind benefactor from a story-book, my fairy godmother. I wanted my happy ending.”
Though The Whispering Muse is a short novel, Purcell cleverly packs in many layers. Both haunting and tragic, this is an unputdownable gothic fever-dream dripping in deadly drama.
ARC provided by Ben at Bloomsbury Books. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Whispering Muse is out 2nd February but you can preorder your copy HERE