Thursday, 9 January 2014

Book Review | The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

Uprooted from her home in India, Alice is raised by her aunt, a spiritualist medium in Windsor. When the mysterious Mr Tilsbury enters their lives, Alice is drawn into a plot to steal the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond, claimed by the British Empire at the end of the Anglo-Sikh wars.

Said to be both blessed and cursed, the sacred Indian stone exerts its power over all who encounter it: a handsome deposed maharajah determined to claim his rightful throne, a man hell-bent on discovering the secrets of eternity, and a widowed queen who hopes the jewel can draw her husband's spirit back. In the midst of all this madness, Alice must discover a way to regain control of her life and fate...


Raised in lovely, lively Lahore by her ayah, a makeshift mother in place of the real parent who passed away on the birthing table, Alice Willoughby is spirited away one dark day by her father — a doctor in the employ of the Empire who deems the days ahead too dangerous for his darling daughter. To wit, he leaves little Alice in Windsor, with instructions to "learn [her] heritage. What it is to be an English child. What it is to be a Christian." (p.41)

Alas, Alice's father is unaware that the aunt who swears she will care for her in his absence harbours certain indefinable designs... on a diamond, and indeed the dead.
My father said it was summertime when we first arrived at Southampton docks. But, so often I found myself shivering and oppressed by the dreariness of day when it seemed all the colours in the world had been bleached away to a dirty grey. My father left me yearning for the only home I'd ever known to live in a house like a darkened maze where, at first, I was very often lost in the claustrophobia of walls too close, of ceilings too low, of narrow stairs that led up and up to a bedroom where the walls had been papered with rosebuds. But those flowers were pale imitations, too regimented and prim by far when compared with the fragrant, blowsy blossoms we'd left behind in India. I would lie in that bedroom and think of home, feeling hungry but never wanting to eat, with the food so bland and lacking taste. And the only thing to comfort me was to stare through the gloom to a gap in the shutters, where I sometimes saw the starlit skies and wondered if those self-same stars were shining over India. To sparkle in my ayah's eyes. (p.22)
As above, so below, for Alice is absolutely miserable in England... particularly after her father's passing. Subsequently, her aunt — name of Miss Mercy, if you can credit it, though of course she shows none — exacts an awful cost for her so-called care of the young lady. "A liar and a charlatan" (p.56) who purports to be able to bring the dead back to life, albeit for a price, Miss Mercy attempts to make an apprentice of Alice.

Unwilling as she is, her only option is to play along, and in this ghastly fashion, time passes. To wit, the bulk of Essie Fox's intoxicating new novel takes place a decade and change later, with Alice a young lady grown ever more determined to escape her aunt's grasp, meanwhile we find Miss Mercy in cahoots with the mysterious Mr Tilsbury, an immaculate man who appears to Alice one night as if in a dream... after which she suffers from fits of morning sickness.

Nine months later, her destiny is decided:
How convenient it was! My aunt would become Mrs Tilsbury, just as she'd always wished to be. She would also command my obedience. She would hold me in debt for her sacrifice. But then, what option did I have? How could I think to cope alone, if I should be homeless, without any income? How could I ever hope to survive? I was trapped. I must be grateful and strive to play the dutiful niece, the cousin to my bastard child — for ever more forced to live my life in abetting my aunt's deception. (p.135)
The Goddess and the Thief is a dense and intensely sensuous text; more passion than possession, perhaps, but no less fantastic for Fox's focus on the more normative aspects of her narrative. Though it begins oh-so-slowly, in time the tale develops into a marvellous melodrama revolving around a plot to steal the accursed Koh-I-Noor — that legendary diamond seized by the Queen as a spoil of the Anglo-Sikh War which led to Britain's occupation of India — and the siren song sung by the same sacred stone.

Caught as she is between these two worlds, one mundane and the other exotic, Alice makes for a magnificently conflicted central character, whose perspective is evidently affected by the home of her heart. To her, train stations "are great temples, and the engines are dragons, puffing smoke." (p.39) Though there is progressively less of this the older Alice gets — and I confess I was not entirely convinced by how easily she eventually dispenses with her Lahori heritage — I loved it while it lasted, and Fox's characterisation of Alice later is far from lacking.

In terms of antagonists, I had high hopes for Miss Mercy and Mr Tilsbury, and there are moments when both seem set to become sympathetic, but by and large they're basically baddies... albeit rather more mannered than most.

Throughout all this, Fox's prose is particularly rich. So full-bodied, in fact, that readers would be well advised to sip her words like fine wine; gulp and The Goddess and the Thief might be a bit much. But as with The Somnambulist and Elijah's Mermaid before it, I found this fiction simply delicious: a gorgeous concoction of vivified Victoriana pleasantly reminiscent of Sarah Waters' work.


The Goddess and the Thief
by Essie Fox

UK Publication: December 2013, Orion

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