Sometimes it feels like there are so many factors that can contribute to my enjoyment of a book. Many of those are obviously to do with the book itself. Are the characters convincing? Am I gripped by the plot? Does the writing style appeal to me? Looking beyond the writing on the page, though, my reading experience is influenced by so many other variables. The weather, the other books I've been reading recently, what kind of day I've had...all these things can mean I'm just not in the right mood for a particular novel at a particular time. Thinking objectively, the book might be awesome on paper and just the kind of thing I'd usually like. But if the stars are not aligned in its favour, I won't enjoy it. And this can make it very difficult to write a fair review!
Alice can't imagine anything better than her life in India. The glorious weather and lush, open landscapes are all she has ever known while growing up under the charge of her loving ayah. But her father is of the opinion that an English little girl should have a traditional English upbringing, and Alice is uprooted, sent away to live in the oppressive gloom of her aunt Mercy's London home. As she gets older, she becomes a reluctant participant in her aunt's business as a spiritualist medium, forced to co-operate with fraudulent operations and occult activities against her will.
Until one day an intriguing stranger arrives at the house and sparks memories of India, full of mysterious tales of the magnificent Koh-I-Noor diamond. Alice feels an instant connection to Lucian Tilsbury...but he has a sinister motive for visiting the two women.
Anybody who has read The Somnambulist or Elijah's Mermaid will agree that Essie Fox certainly knows her stuff when it comes to Victorian gothic. Her previous books have perfectly recreated the dark mystique of that age, and The Goddess And The Thief is no different. The characters and settings quite simply jump off the page and are vividly realised in the mind's eye.
For me, the biggest strength of this novel was the way Fox used magical tales from Hindu scripture and intertwined them with Alice's own experiences. Deities such as Parvati and Shiva were not previously familiar to me and I found their stories fascinating. It was a really enjoyable way to learn about a culture that I would never otherwise have taken the time to discover for myself. There is a great guest post by Essie Fox over on Fleur In Her World where she talks about the research behind the book, and it is remarkable to gain insight into just how much hard work goes into her writing. I'm sure we have all encountered authors who rely on nothing more than stereotypes to support their depictions of other cultures, so it's refreshing to enjoy the fruits of such meticulous groundwork.
Having said all this, I have to admit that overall I just didn't enjoy this one and found it quite difficult to read. I think the problem is that I found the plot to be incredibly bleak and perhaps I wasn't prepared for that kind of reading experience before picking it up. Alice does have a truly dreadful time of it and the reader can do nothing but despair on her behalf as events unfold. As a single woman in Victorian London she is completely at her aunt's mercy and has no opportunity to fight back or do anything to improve her situation. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm not someone who needs sunshine, lollipops and happy endings to enjoy a good book, but there is an oppressive mood that pervades The Goddess And The Thief and I found it almost stifling.
I have been left with a funny feeling that at another time, in another mood, I might have enjoyed this one much more than I did. Maybe it was one of those days when I just needed to read some cheerful fluff. Do any of you ever get this feeling?
Many thanks to Sophie at Orion Books, who sent me my copy of this book via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.