Bone China by Laura Purcell
Fiend as I am for a spooky tale I immediately requested this when it popped up on NetGalley…:
In the caves beneath a remote house on the Cornish coast Dr Pinecroft and his daughter, Louise, have created a sanatorium in an attempt to find a cure for consumption. Pinecroft is convinced the sea air and the cold will lead to a huge turning point in treatment of this pernicious disease, which has already devastated his own family. Louise, his remaining child – an intelligent, spirited and gifted young woman – remains with him to be nurse to his patients.
Forty years later Hester Why takes up employment as the now elderly Louise’s personal maid/nurse. Hester finds the house unsettling, some of the staff even more so. She has had a difficult journey herself to get to this point and she is our main point of contact with the household of the elderly, paralysed Miss Pinecroft – but is she a reliable narrator? You’ll have to see what you think!
Purcell draws on supersition and folklore in ‘Bone China’ much as she did in ‘The Silent Companions’, building an atmosphere of unease and haunting dread as the story gathers pace. Here in Cornwall we encounter not witchcraft but fairies. These are not the sweet little creatures who live among Cicely Mary Barker‘s flowers, they’re the malevolent and cruel beings of folklore. Morvoren House holds many secrets, even the china display harbours something. Creeda – long time servant and nursemaid of Rosewyn (Miss Pinecroft’s strange, childlike ward) – believes utterly that she herself was stolen by the faery folk as a child, and then brought back; this event informs her whole outlook. Both Louise and Hester – a generation apart – find Creeda an unsettling force to be reckoned with; is Creeda mad…or can she see more than most?
This is fundamentally a story about loss. We discover that Dr Pinecroft is only able to buy Morvoren because it’s previous owner suffered a devastating loss of capital. Pinecroft himself has lost almost all his family; his patieints are convicts – thier freedom gone, they’ll die in prison – or in his cave-sanatorium. Louise feels any possible other life receding – she knows she will never marry, and so devotes herself to her Papa and his work. Hester believes herself to be cursed, in going to work at Morvoren she is running away from catastrophe.
Morvoren is not a happy house, it sits on the cliff top, cold and unwelcoming, the house seems haunted, there are ‘dripping sounds’ and unearthly singing. The cliffs contain caves where strange noises are heard, there are deep fissures emerging in unexpected places. Even Louise’s one walk with her faithful dog, one taste of freedom, is affected by the landscape. In setting this in Cornwall Purcell has tapped into the savage nature of this beautiful coast; Rebecca’s Manderley, wreckers, mermaids and pixies were never far from my mind while reading this.
Bone China is an unsettling read from start to finish. I was never sure quite where I was with the events described here – even the significance of the titular china is hard to pin down entirely (though I thought I had many times). With it’s two eventually converging timelines and several narrators it would have been very easy for Bone China to have become confusing, but Purcell moulds these narratives brilliantly into a creepy and uncanny whole.
If you’re a fan of spooky gothic tales then I think this is an ideal autumn/winter read, if you can do so in a big house on a cliff then even better, but maybe keep some of the lights on…and watch out for faeries.
Bone China is published by Bloomsbury Raven in September 2019. Thanks to them for providing a review copy via NetGalley.