April 18, 2016

Book Review: The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

A chilling and spooky Gothic historical thriller reminiscent of Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw, dripping with the dark twists and eerie surprises that are the hallmarks of Edgar Allan Poe, from the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of Citadel.

In a remote village near the English coast, residents gather in a misty churchyard. More than a decade into the twentieth century, superstition still holds sway: It is St. Mark’s Eve, the night when the shimmering ghosts of those fated to die in the coming year are said to materialize and amble through the church doors.

Alone in the crowd is Constantia Gifford, the taxidermist’s daughter. Twenty-two and unmarried, she lives with her father on the fringes of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered with the remains of his once world-famous museum of taxidermy. No one speaks of why the museum was shuttered or how the Giffords fell so low. Connie herself has no recollection—a childhood accident has erased all memory of her earlier days. Even those who might have answers remain silent. The locals shun Blackthorn House, and the strange spinster who practices her father’s macabre art.

As the last peal of the midnight bell fades to silence, a woman is found dead—a stranger Connie noticed near the church. In the coming days, snippets of long lost memories will begin to tease through Connie’s mind, offering her glimpses of her vanished years. Who is the victim, and why has her death affected Connie so deeply? Why is she watched by a mysterious figure who has suddenly appeared on the marsh nearby? Is her father trying to protect her with his silence—or someone else? The answers are tied to a dark secret that lies at the heart of Blackthorn House, hidden among the bell jars of her father’s workshop—a mystery that draws Connie closer to danger . . . closer to madness . . . closer to the startling truth.

“Gothic” is one of those descriptors which evoke a Pavlovian response in me – I immediately start salivating. Add “Rebecca” and “Turn of the Screw” and taxidermy and you have got me hook, line and sinker.  My verdict?  Ultimately, I was riveted enough to forego other pursuits to finish this book – but I would not go so far as to mention Rebecca and Turn of the Screw as comparables.

Mosse has always been problematic for me – in that every single one of her books should captivate me but despite repeated tries, I have yet to actually go past the first three chapters of any of them – until this one.  The Taxidermist’s Daughter succeeded simply because I was morbidly fascinated by the first chapter’s vivid description of our heroine painstakingly readying a jackdaw to be stuffed.  Mosse transported me via sensory detail and I was immediately lost in the story. 

“Connie felt most herself when she was alone in the workshop.  She and a bird, working together to create something new and extraordinary.   The process itself was its own reward.  The business of skinning and cleaning and stuffing rooted her in something tangible, kept her tethered to the real world.”

However, taxidermy turns out to be a mere hook rather than the substance of the plot, which is a mystery stemming from something horrific that happened when our heroine was a child, something of which she has no memory.

“…the fear came seeping through her bones, like ink through blotting paper, that what was happening now had its roots not in the gathering in a churchyard last week – nor even in the fact that an unknown woman had stood watching the house a few days before that-but further back still.

“In the vanished days.”

Mosse teases out the truth, interspersing our heroine’s eventual (and slow) discovery with some graphic chapters. The resolution wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped – mostly because I found myself yearning for Mosse to have delved more into the perspective of the alternate, shocking chapters.

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