Kate Mosse, author of The Taxidermist’s Daughter grew up in Fishbourne (Sussex), the setting for her latest novel. Her familiarity is evident, as this novel is as much about the setting and environment as the (slowly) unfolding plot itself.
Mosse has written a number of novels, plays and non-fiction – many of her novels leaning towards gothic fiction. (Not a genre which usually interests me.)
The novel’s blurb and prologue both feature a gathering of (mostly) men who believe that on the Eve of St Mark the ghosts of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen walking into the church. We later learn – however – that a few in attendance have been invited for a very specific reason.
It’s 1912 and Constantia (Connie) Gifford is hiding in the foliage watching the gathering, unsure of its purpose. She’s only there to ensure her alcoholic father (and former ‘stuffer of birds’) Crowley Gifford makes it home from the pub safely.
Connie has learned the art of taxidermy from her father who once owned Gifford’s World-Famous House of Avian Curiosities. The museum isn’t something 22 year old Connie remembers however, as a fall ten years previously wiped her memory clear. Her father lost the museum and moved to Fishbourne to start afresh, but he’s never really recovered from the disappointments of his past.
Harry Woolston, in Fishbourne looking for his father, comforts Connie after her discovery and waits with her for authorities. The pair become interested in each other, despite the occasion.
Young wannabe artist (and gentleman) Harry followed his father (Dr Woolston) from nearby Chichester after he’d heard his father in a loud and angry argument. It was unlike his father to rush off and Harry’s suspicions were raised.
Unbeknown to Harry (and Connie) Dr Woolston and some colleagues are being targeted as revenge for an incident which took place a decade before.
It’s a bit hard to say too much about this novel without giving away its secrets. Having said that – however – much of what unfolds is fairly obvious. There are too many coincidences to not be able to join the dots.
I have to admit this is not the sort of book I’d usually read. On the face of it, it’s about a fresh murder and some disappearances which may, or may not, be associated with long-hidden events.
I really (really really) struggled with the first third. I was going to put it aside in my DNF (did not finish) pile. However… I picked it up on the second evening, wanting to ensure I’d given it a proper try before quitting. And thankfully, the pace picked-up and I became interested.
Not a lot happens early in the novel. There’s a lot of detail about taxidermy and I confess I skimmed this part as detailed descriptions of slicing birds open and removing their eyes (etc) just didn’t rock my boat. The whole thing was a bit macabre for me.
However, I became intrigued by the story of Connie and Harry. It’s obvious from her father’s drunk ramblings that he’s keeping secrets and they’re triggering in Connie, memories from her missing years…
The novel’s well-written and I liked most of the characters, including those on the periphery; housemaid Mary and local boy Davey were standouts.
Fans of Gothic fiction and thrillers will undoubtedly love this novel. There’s a good balance between the ‘mystical’ and symbolism of the birds, with a bit of romance thrown in, past wrongs needing to be righted and a stunning (albeit dark and bleak) setting.
* I received a copy of this novel from the publisher for review purposes.