It’s fair to say that this book has rescued me from a real reading slump. Over the past few weeks I’ve been dutifully working my way through a few books that aren’t at all bad, yet aren’t completely holding my attention either. For me the sign of a really, REALLY good read is one that calls you back whenever you try to leave it; one that has you counting the hours until you’ll get a chance to immerse yourself in it once more. “The Silversmith’s Wife” is exactly this kind of book and I knew from the outset that the two of us were going to get along very well indeed!
It’s set in late eighteenth century London and starts with the discovery of a dead body in the middle of Berkeley Square. The unfortunate victim is Pierre Renard, a celebrated silversmith of the city – and there are very few people mourning his death. The extracts from his diary, fed to us one tantalising snippet at a time at the beginning of each chapter, make it quite clear why: Pierre was a truly abhorrent human being. For me, the portrayal of this particular character was one of the cleverest aspects of the book. We never actually see the silversmith alive, but even dead he is utterly chilling. The diary reveals a man whose calculated manipulation of and cruelty towards others bordered on the sociopathic, and his delusions of grandeur and ruthless promotion of his own self-interest were mirrored in a complete disregard for anyone he considered weak or beneath him. Even when he talks of love it is in reality infatuation rather than any meaningful emotional connection. It’s no wonder his widow, psychologically scarred from years of torment at the hands of this monster, still feels that he somehow has a hold on her even from beyond the grave. All this makes for a very interesting reader response to the mystery at hand; normally we would be willing the murderer to be caught so that justice can prevail, but here we’re eager for them to be unmasked so we can in effect congratulate them on their actions.
The investigation unravels in an ingenious way. As well as there being several people who are quite happy to see Pierre Renard dead and buried, there are also a number who have their own reasons for wanting to get to the truth of what happened, and as a result we get to see the web of the victim’s interactions from many illuminating angles. I didn’t work out who the killer was; but then there’s so much of interest revealed as the story progresses that the secrets, lies and loves of the supporting characters become just as enthralling as the question of who ended Pierre’s life. Most important of all, as the title suggests, is the silversmith’s wife Mary. The losses and hardship that she’s endured throughout her life have left her almost broken, but there’s a spark of hope in the shape of a man who, many years before, missed out on winning her love when Pierre came on the scene. This quiet, understated love story brings a small strand of light to a tale that is, at times, very shadowy indeed. For me, one of the most disturbing elements is the abysmal treatment of women; historically accurate but hard to stomach. It’s well known that at this time many women were married off into families that provided good financial prospects without love ever coming into the equation, but even after Mary escapes the clutches of her abusive husband through his death, control over her future merely passes to other influential men around her. She cannot inherit the silver business as Pierre wished it to go to his (male) apprentice, and the executors of his will are even handed the right to approve or reject any future marriage that Mary might wish to make. Yet despite the fact that the women depicted are unarguably powerless in many ways, the book is full of determined females who are fighting back against the constraints of a patriarchal society in the small ways they can.
This novel has so much to recommend it: a thrilling mystery, an incredibly well-drawn cast of characters that you will both love and hate, and a chilling sense of the dark depths to which humanity will sink, perfectly reflected by the physical darkness of the unlit winter nights and the foreboding houses of the square. As I said at the start of today’s blog, it’s been a while since a book captured my interest in the way this one did, and for a novel to make you miss it when you’re not reading it is perhaps the best recommendation of all.