A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin – review

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It has to be said that Sophie Tobin writes really cracking stories.  I’ve read all her previous novels, and every single one is a proper stay up late, just-one-more-chapter kind of book; this one possibly even more so than any of the others.  In A Map of the Damage we get a double-whammy of excitement and intrigue with a dual narrative tale of love, loss and obsession, the two stories linked by the elegant yet imposing Mirrormakers’ Club in London, which we visit during its design and construction in the nineteenth century and again as it weathers the incendiary bombs of the Second World War.

In 1940, Livy makes her way to the club after she is caught up in a bomb blast.  Quite what draws her there she can’t say; the blast has left her with no memory of who she is or where she belongs, and the only thing she has to go on is a sense that this is somehow a place of safety.  Not long after, the Mirrormakers building also exerts its mysterious pull on two men for whom it holds a very different significance – for one, it may provide clues to the whereabouts of a missing family heirloom, and for the other, a glimmer of hope and the chance to reclaim something – or someone – long since lost.

In 1838, a freak accident leads to a chance encounter between an architect and the wife of the man overseeing his commission – to design and build the Mirrormakers’ Club.  It’s the start of an attraction that will lead both of them down an increasingly tortuous path towards the tantalising possibility of happiness and freedom; but are the obstacles too great to be overcome?

Both stories were perfectly balanced; I sometimes get the sense with multiple narratives that the author is more engaged in one than the other, or perhaps one of them doesn’t flow as naturally, but not here.  I was equally committed to both sets of characters and storylines, albeit for different reasons.  The wartime story I found surprisingly affecting (it brought a tear to my eye a couple of times!), in particular the idea of an amnesiac being oblivious to the past they shared with people who cared for them, and who are now forced into maintaining an emotional distance that’s heartbreaking to watch.  The nineteenth century storyline brought with it the almost unbearable tension of a passionate love story carried out almost entirely within the constraints of formal dinners and drawing room visits; the more you witness the way in which controlling husband Ashton Kinsburg manipulates how others perceive his wife by moulding her into an image of his own perfectionist ideals, the angrier you become and the more you’re willing her on to leaving her him for the lovestruck architect.  Of course, the times being what they are, that isn’t as simple as a reader might wish it to be.

Manipulation and exploitation of women for social or sexual gain rears its head in both eras, but I still felt that ultimately this book belongs to its women.  Charlotte Kinsburg, who falls in love with her husband’s architect, could be said to have the last laugh, even as her grasping descendants hunt high and low for the diamond that one belonged to her; she gazes down implacably from a painting in the Mirrormakers’ Club, almost daring anyone to try and pry her secrets from her.  Livy’s past may have been taken from her, but she attacks the future with a determination to make her own plans and regain control of the life she has left.  And watching over them all is the club itself, which, with its mirrors, domes and glass that play tricks on the eye and the mind, seems to be almost alive, organic and fluid.  It becomes as many different things as there are characters: a safe haven, a symbol of power and wealth, a love letter in stone.  I think I will remember the staircases, dim basement rooms and vast halls of the edifice almost more than I will the human faces that roam through it.

Thank you for reading as ever!  If you’ve read this or any other of Sophia Tobin’s books, do comment and let me know what you think.

Related posts:  The Silversmith’s Wife review                                                                                                              The Widow’s Confession review

 

“The Widow’s Confession” by Sophia Tobin – review

It feels like ages since I posted a book review so I’m really pleased to be back with the second novel from Sophia Tobin whose debut, “The Silversmith’s Wife”, I very much enjoyed.  I’ve been particularly keen to read this one since it’s set in a part of Kent not far from where I live and with which I’m familiar having visited many times over the years; it’s not often you get to read a novel set in a place you know well and in which you can picture the buildings, streets, landmarks and landscapes exactly as they are in reality, and it gives the story a unique and personal flavour.  More than ever, I could imagine that the characters were truly there, walking in the places I’ve walked and seeing the things I’ve seen.  But of course, this is ultimately a gripping and deeply atmospheric tale whether you know the backdrop or not.

The quote on the front cover describes the novel as having “a dash of Wilkie Collins” and I’d definitely concur.  If you’re enticed by a nineteenth century setting, an enigmatic widow, priests with dark secrets and of course the appearance of a few dead bodies then you won’t be disappointed.  The titular widow is Delphine, who turns up in the seaside town of Broadstairs with her cousin Julia after ten years of travelling around Europe.  This lengthy trip is no indulgence, but rather one the pair was forced to make, fleeing their native USA after Delphine – we know not quite how – brought shame to her family through certain choices she made.  After being caught up in the bustle of a London overcrowded with people following the installation of the Great Exhibition, the women are hoping to find a quiet location in which to fade into obscurity, but it is not to be.  They soon become sucked into an unlikely social group, almost all of whom have come to the furthest reaches of Kent in an attempt to escape from their sorrows, hide from their past or to battle their emotional and spiritual demons.  Edmund Steele is escaping an aborted love affair and has come to stay with Theo Hallam, the local clergyman whose unexplained lapses into melancholy hint at some unexpressed inner torment.  Mr Benedict is an artist dragged down, it seems, by the mundanity of everyday life and whose desire for stimulation leads him to conduct himself in a questionable – potentially dangerous – way.  Miss Waring is a somewhat formidable middle-aged woman who’s come to Broadstairs to benefit from the sea air, but her niece Alba who has accompanied her is a strange, disquieting girl who veers between coquettish, manipulative and disarmingly childlike and divides the opinion of the party.  When the first body is found on the beach, the assumption is that a murderer is hiding somewhere within the coastal community.  When the second appears, suspicions begin to turn inwards and what trust there was within this group of outsiders starts to crumble.

There are so many things this novel does well.  I’ve already talked about the sense of place, which is so sharp it’d be almost as vivid to readers who haven’t been there as it is to me.  Then there’s the mystery of the murdered girls, which kept me guessing (and I guessed wrongly a few times) until the finale’s big reveal; I hadn’t worked out who the killer or killers were and I certainly wouldn’t have figured out the motive in a month of Sundays.  For me though, the triumph was the nuanced portrayal of a group of characters whose unlikely companionship, which has essentially been forced upon them by circumstance, is gradually pulled apart.  Under the stress of their proximity to the murders and their individual secrets and past tragedies, the party begins to splinter into factions united in mistrust of others.  Focussing on a tight group of people really allows the author to get under the skin of each and every one, and also creates a claustrophobic feel that’s shared by a growing number of the group as they long to be able to escape yet cannot quite extricate themselves.  She also takes great delight in playing with our perceptions of her creations, teasing us with clues as to their true character, which may or may not be red herrings.  Our opinion of almost everyone shifts back and forth as their stories are unwrapped layer by layer; beneath the gothic intrigue there’s a pertinent truth here, namely that all of us are guilty of making assumptions about others before we’re in full possession of the facts.  The question of who killed the girls found on the shore drives the story forward, but the mystery of who all these characters really are behind their various masks is almost more intriguing, and in many ways of more lasting significance once the tale comes to an end.

Sophia Tobin has cemented herself as one of those authors whose novels I’m pretty sure I’ll keep buying as long as she keeps writing them.  Easy to read yet with a satisfying amount of depth to them, for me they’re the epitome of reading entertainment.   I very much hope there won’t be as long a gap between this review and the next as there has been between many of my scribblings of late; there’s at least one more in the pipeline, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or indeed anything book-related!  Thank you for reading as ever.

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“The Silversmith’s Wife” by Sophia Tobin – review

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.

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