|THE WIDOW’S CONFESSION
Sophia Tobin (sophiatobin.wordpress.com)
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
In the summer of 1851, Edmund Steele leaves the stresses of London behind and, at the behest of his good friend, heads to the seaside resort of Broadstairs and takes up residence with the town’s parson, Theo Hallam. It isn’t long before Edmund and Theo find themselves part of a group of incomers who, led by the headstrong Mrs Quillian, spend much of the summer on excursions. There are secrets aplenty – Theo and Edmund both have their own; as have the two American women who are part of their group, and the artist, Ralph Benedict, who has a knack for rubbing people the wrong way. Within days of the group’s formation, the body of a young girl is found on the beach. The local doctor claims it as a suicide, but each member of the group has his or her own reasons for believing it to be otherwise. When the body of a second girl is discovered later in the summer, it begins to seem as if Broadstairs is a dangerous place to be, and the incomers are viewed with suspicion by the town’s full-time residents.
Sophia Tobin’s second novel takes us on a trip to Broadstairs, a place made famous by regular visits from Charles Dickens (while he doesn’t make an appearance in the novel, his presence is noted a number of times during the narrative), and introduces us to an odd assortment of central characters who each have something to hide. Bookended by excerpts from a letter written by Delphine Beck, the American widow who plays a central role in the proceedings, the story unfolds from multiple points of view as the summer progresses. This is an interesting approach, and allows Tobin to show us all of the characters from several different perspectives: each of these characters has something to hide, and this approach allows Tobin to cast suspicion on everyone, keeping the reader in the dark until the very end.
While the murders provide some impetus to the proceedings, they are almost a sidebar to the novel’s true purpose. An examination of the relationships that develop between strangers in a short period of time, Tobin’s narrative sheds light on the constraints and rules that defined how people interacted during the Victorian era. In stark contrast to modern social mores and rules of civility, many of the dark secrets that haunt these characters are trivial; it is difficult to comprehend how these things – which seem so normal to the modern reader – could have ruined lives or affected futures. Yet, without resorting to tiresome exposition, the author takes us to a place where we can have some empathy with these people, understand the pressures they are under and the impact these seemingly-unimportant decisions have on their lives.
The Widow’s Confession is, as you might expect, something of a slow-moving read. Categorised as a historical thriller, the thrills are few and far between – though the sense of threat is always present since we have no idea who the culprit is – the bulk of the novel focuses on the relationship between the characters, and the loves that blossom as the summer progresses. It’s an engrossing read all the same; the characters, and the interplay between them, perfectly-wrought to fill the spaces – and make us unaware of the fact that not much thrilling is happening – between the scenes of horror that face them in the lifeless forms of the young girls on the beach. The killer’s identity, when revealed, is pleasantly surprising, and their reasoning further evidence of the straight-laced times in which the story is set. By this point, though, whether or not the killer should be found is relatively unimportant to the reader, superseded in many ways by the petty deceits and arguments that define this small group of strangers.
A beautifully-written novel, The Widow’s Confession captures the tone of the writing of the period as well as the mood of the people. The characters are well-drawn, and the amount of information that Tobin holds back from the reader well-judged to add a bit of intrigue to the stuffed-shirt nature of the period. Tobin has already won acclaim for last year’s The Silversmith’s Wife; The Widow’s Confession builds on that solid foundation and is sure to win her an army of new fans. Intelligent and well-plotted, this is a novel with huge appeal for a wide range of readers.