April 27, 2021

Book Review

The Shape of Darkness

Laura Purcell

reviewed by Fiona Cook

Compelling and darkly mysterious, The Shape of Darkness is a Victorian murder mystery, woven through with threads of spiritualism and the supernatural.

Set in Bath, England, the novel follows two seemingly unconnected women as a series of murders haunt the town. Agnes Darken, silhouette artist, finds herself struggling to keep her family afloat after a series of tragedies strikes them. Pearl Meers, child medium and daughter of a dying man, meanwhile, finds herself the unwilling pawn of a sister determined to make her the messenger to spirits from beyond the veil. When Agnes begins to fear that the connection between the murdered souls is her own silhouette shop, the two will find that their fates have suddenly intertwined.

The Shape of Darkness is an unsettling read, in all the best ways. Victorians had, if not an obsession with death, then at minimum a thoroughly morbid curiosity. No wonder, then, that so many of their authors produced ghost stories very similar to this one, filled with glimpses of a world beyond our own and quietly but surely building to a terrifying climax. There’s a sense of menace and foreboding from the very first page of this novel, but Laura Purcell takes her time with the story and allows her reader to truly get to know her characters, until we invest ourselves in their lives, dreams, and fears. It makes for an immersive horror experience, one that’s all the more chilling for being so subtle.

Outside of the horror, too, there’s a lot to love here, though that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone familiar with the author’s previous work. Historical details are perfectly researched, and the daily minutiae of life in Victorian England serves as a beautiful backdrop. And that ending – I’ve never yet spoiled a book in a review, and I don’t plan to start now – but that ending is the kind of scorpion sting in the tail that just takes my breath away. It was the perfect cap to what had been a very enjoyable book, and the finishing touch that I know is going to keep this story in my mind for a very long time to come.

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