Gnnnnngh, I’m so torn on this book. This isn’t a case of being torn because the writing is bad, or the plot was bloated, or it’s overly long. I’m torn because the writing is superb, the plot is fine and the novel comes in at a good length chipping with a happy pace, but despite all of that, I just didn’t gel with it.
I’ve wanted to read The Somnambulist for quite some time now. I’ve admitted before that I’m a sucker for an inspired cover and this is particularly striking. But, ultimately, I wanted to read it because the blurb intrigued me. This was to be the books downfall as what transpires within its pages didn’t really live up to the synopsis.
From reading the rear of the book we see Phoebe, the central character, living a lonely life with her fanatically religious Mother. She looks with longing at her Aunt, Cissy, as Cissy performs on stage surrounded by friends. One night a mysterious man enters Phoebe’s life, he has connections with her family and things will never be the same again. It’s all very ominous, and the fact that the book is set in the Gothic surroundings of Victorian England only heightens the tension.
Rather than dance around my main issue with the book, I’ll come out and say that my impression of Phoebe was disappointing. She is ultimately a conflicting character to read. That doesn’t mean that Essie Fox hasn’t created a character that others will love, but for me she just doesn’t work. As a reader I never got a sense of who she was, what she wanted and where she wanted to go. Admittedly, these are things she herself struggles with, but as a reader I want to empathise with the cast.
The only time I felt a connection with this young woman was during the horrifically sad moments in her life where a cruel fate dealt her cards that she didn’t deserve. I wanted her to succeed and transform her life, something which I thought she wanted too. However during some moments I had to wonder if she revels in her sadness and misery.
Thankfully the supporting cast offer a little more. Old Riley, the dotty seamstress is a wonderful character. Someone who thumbs their nose at the “ought to’s” and “should do’s”. She is marvellously polar opposite to Phoebe and their dynamics work brilliantly together. Old Riley also shines whenever Phoebes oppressive Mother appears. Rarely does a character make me want to reach into the book and slap them and you get a sense that Old Riley would if she could.
To describe any parts of the plot would be awkward because from within the first 50 pages Fox plants a seed for the entire book and one that would be considered a rather major spoiler. Needless to say the book peaks and troughs through Phoebe’s life and the book takes on many different aspects from the run down slums of London, to the glamorous powder coated stages and even to grand mansions in the countryside.
Before I sat down to write this review I literally walked back and forth postulating over how I felt about the novel. Ultimately a review should convey whether I enjoyed it, and I did, particularly Fox’s writing. But perhaps not as much as I wanted, nor expected. It’s possibly summed up with more ease by saying, perhaps it just wasn’t for me. Regardless, there will be a large fanbase for this debut novel and I still look forward to what Essie Fox brings us next.
The Somnambulist is available now