Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell

Dorothea believes wholeheartedly in charitable works. And if her chosen focus—the conditions at Oakgate Prison—just happen to allow her to explore her passion for phrenology, all the better. 

When Dorothea meets Ruth Butterham, she is simply desperate to get at the girl's skull. Ruth's crime is a heinous one and Ruth's confession upon their first meeting that she has killed many, intrigues Dorothea even more. But Ruth's supposed crimes are of a peculiar sort. Each time they meet, she tells more of her tale to Dorothea and it's one woven with oddities that the society woman immediately writes off as superstition. The more she learns of Ruth and her victims, however, the more Dorothea questions whether there's something more than imagination to the tale. 

If Victorian gothic is your jam, Laura Purcell needs to be in your reading plans!

Dorothea is a practical woman and she is a staunch believer in phrenology. This is the terribly maligned belief that people once held regarding the connection between behavior and skull shape. Really, it was an attempt to assign a biological explanation as to why people do the things they do. Obviously, it was short lived as a historical note in criminal justice, but it is alive and well in Dorothea's world!

Poor Ruth is just sixteen as the story takes place and the tale she recounts to Dorothea begins when she's just thirteen. She's the bullied only daughter of a former society woman who was cut off after marrying beneath her station. And they've all suffered for the sin ever since.

Things get worse for the family when Ruth is taken out of school to help her mother's knitting and sewing work so they can afford the addition of a new member to their family, something Ruth is initially resentful for even though it takes her beyond the clutches of her tormentors.

But Ruth has a talent with a needle that is the envy of even her own mother. And soon Ruth comes to believe her talent extends beyond simply creating clean stitches and beautiful patterns.

Ruth is a pitiable character. She suffers so much and the reader can't help by sympathize with her. Even Dorothea finds herself sympathizing with the girl, though she analyzes every statement with an understandable reservation. On the one hand, she believes in verifiable facts. And there are many, many verifiable facts to Ruth's story as well as logical explanations for the more fantastical parts. The story causes her to evaluate her own situation more than she'd like as well considering she's been carrying on with an illicit affair under her father's nose.

As with her debut, The Silent Companion, the thread of potential supernatural forces throughout the book remains something both Dorothea and the reader question as a reality throughout the book. And the pacing is deliberate, which, paired with a quieter sense of dread throughout, means this is a slow burn.

But what a read it is! If you have the patience and the time to really dive into Purcell's work, it is so rewarding! The creep factor ratchets up with each new chapter. The story becomes darker and darker as Ruth's story comes closer to it's end. And the unexpected (but strongly hinted at) twist is so satisfying!

I loved this book immensely and highly recommend it for fans of creepy classic gothic historicals!

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