The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox (Orion)
When I put a little reviewette of this book on Instagram I really didn’t expect to hear back from the author, but I did. A thank you and “you made my day” for my photo and a very few words. Really, it was the least I could do for a book I enjoyed so much it could almost have been written for me. So many boxes ticked…but we’ll come to that.
I borrowed this from the library, yes I AM making an effort to not be walled in by my own books/bankrupted by bibliophily, and initially it was the startling lime green and pink cover that caught my eye (well done boldandnoble.com). The words “A dark Victorian novel, a diamond, a curse, an obsession” lured me further in. How could it not! within you find reference to and influcence from; The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins does seem to haunt this book), The Secret Garden, Indian myth, the history of the East India Company, a seriously complicated and dangerous theft, a little celtic myth, dodgy Victorian seances, actual spirits of the dead, opium addiction, obsession (of all kinds), class, Victorian social morality, and the end seeming not to really be The End at all. In all, it’s like I’d given Essie Fox a list of “all my favourite things in books” and she’d written the book.
Alice Willoughby is sent from India to live with her Aunt Mercy in Windsor, leaving her beloved ayah behind. Her ayah had been, in the eyes of Alice’s father, almost been turning the child native. Alice’s father, Charles Willoughby, goes back to India where he meets his end – and so Alice is at the mercy of Mercy – a Victorian spiritualist of the charlatan kind. Many strange things ensue – not least the appearance of mysterious Mr Tilsbury – and Alice is drawn into a plot to steal the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
Even though the planned theft is particularly audacious, it’s not truly the heart of the story. The heart is, I think, the question of belief, desire and trust. There’s a druggy wooziness pervading the whole tale, which we hear unfold mainly via our narrator Alice (is she reliable or not?) and the internal dialogue, or “thoughts – never heard” of other characters. Essie Fox takes us from India; its gods and godesses and it’s percieved (from a Victorian English person’s point of view) sensuality, to cold, uptight on the surface 19th century Windsor. It is told in vivid language, which had this reader enthralled to the point of not being able to put the book down.