________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 8. . . .October 21, 2011


Haunting Violet.

Alexandra Harvey.
New York, NY: Walker & Company (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2011.
344 pp., hardcover, $21.00.
ISBN 978-0-8027-9839-8.

Subject Headings:
Social classes-Fiction.
Great Britain-History-Victoria, 1837-1901-Fiction.
Mystery and detective stories.

Grades 9-11 / Ages 14-16.

Review by Darleen Golke

***½ /4



The light flashed off the water behind Tabitha. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except that suddenly my eyes felt painfully focused. My perspective stretched, then narrowed just as abruptly. It was the oddest thing. I shivered as goose bumps rose on my skin like a lawn of new grass poking out of the ground at springtime.

More distressing yet was the fact that Tabitha seemed to waver, as if she were standing in the oppressive heat of India instead of a perfectly pleasant English summer day. She wavered again and became two Tabitha, with the one on the left as pale as almond cream.

I suddenly knew why I had thought Tabitha looked familiar.

And I didn’t like it one bit.

“Violet!” I could hear Elizabeth’s worried voice, but it seemed to be coming from very far away.

“Why is she staring at me like that?” Tabitha snapped. “Is she having some sort of a fit?”

If only.

The other Tabitha opened her mouth and water streamed out, soaking into her already waterlogged dress and creating a puddle under her bare feet. There were lilies and long grasses caught in her hair. It was the same girl I had seen in the parlor last night.

And she was identical to Tabitha.

Except, of course, she was transparent.

So much for pretending none of this was actually happening to me.

I could see the outline of the decorative yew hedge behind Tabitha’s double and, faintly, the distant pond. She reached out to touch Tabitha but her hand passed right though her shoulder. I flinched, waiting for the shrieking to begin.

There was nothing but the starlings singing from the rooftop. Tabitha didn’t so much as twitch, though I did notice gooseflesh on her neck. I stared at Elizabeth. She came from a Spiritualist family; surely she realized what was going on.

Elizabeth just stared back at me, quizzically.

“Miss Wentworth,” I finally croaked. “Do you have a twin sister?”

I don’t know who was paler, Tabitha or the suddenly excited spirit at her side.

“Excuse me?” Her tone was positively frigid, but I barely noticed. I was starting to feel faint. The governess made a strangled sound and rose to her feet.

“She drowned, didn’t she?” I paused, thinking of the water that had inexplicably filled my room last night and then just as inexplicably disappeared. Around her wrists were bruises like jet beads. “No,” I whispered, finally realizing what I was seeing. “She didn’t just drown. She was murdered.”

Styling herself a “Spiritualist medium,” Celeste Willoughby (aka Mary Morgan), 16-year-old Violet’s mother, manages enough credibility to wrangle an invitation to a house party at Rosefield, the country estate of Lord Jasper, a peer well-versed in Spiritualist matters. With the help of Violet and Colin, an orphan Celeste rescued from London’s streets, Celeste has successfully hoodwinked the vulnerable and susceptible into believing their dearly departed communicated through her skills. Violet, however, detests the deception and “doesn’t believe in spirit guides or spirits” or ghosts. Ironically, Violet discovers ghosts “clearly believed” in her as she encounters a variety of spirits, the most persistent of which is a girl with “long translucent hair” drifting under water, smelling of lilies, dripping water like rain, and wearing “a white dress layered with flowers.” When a living double for the ghost Violet keeps seeing joins the Rosefield party, her friend Elizabeth explains that the girl is Tabitha Wentworth whose twin, Rowena, had drowned the previous year. Violet’s encounters with Rowena lead her to conclude she “didn’t just drown. She was murdered” and will not rest peacefully until the murderer is brought to justice.

      Violet feels compelled to find Rowena’s murderer and solicits the help of Elizabeth and Colin in the investigation. The list of suspects includes Tabitha’s companion, Caroline; the late Rowena’s fiancé, Peter; the mysterious Mr. Travis; young noblemen, Fitzwilliam, Winterbourne, and Underhall; and the twin’s guardian, Sir Wentworth. The trio’s sleuthing provokes two attacks on Violet suggesting that their activities have not gone unnoticed by the murderer. As the house party progresses, Celeste “performs” her routines as a medium, reluctantly aided by Violet and Colin; however, her duplicity is unmasked when one of the guests turns on the lights during a session exposing Celeste in a state of dishabille and clearly a fraud. They flee the nobility’s scorn, returning to London where Celeste learns of Violet’s paranormal abilities and insists “you owe me.” By setting Violet up as the new Spiritualist medium, Celeste reclaims her clientele but leaves Violet frustrated and uncomfortable. Ultimately, Lord Jasper invites Violet to return to Rosefield and study spiritualism with him, thereby removing her from Celeste’s poisonous environment and allowing her to successfully expose Rowena’s murderer, albeit at considerable risk to her own safety.

      Author of the “Dark Chronicles” series, Harvey changes pace with Haunting Violet to present a novel that combines mystery, paranormal, and historical genres set in Victorian England with its rigid class structure and social mores. Violet narrates events allowing readers to share her frustration in dealing with a difficult mother, her discomfort with deception, her desire for friendship and acceptance, her realistic view of her circumstances balanced against her hopes, her strength of character, and her intelligence and resilience. During the Victorian era in England, Spiritualism fascinated people who obviously were willing to suspend disbelief and accept what one critic labelled "monstrous folly." The upper class sought new entertainment possibilities that included mediums, séances, and spirit-boards to facilitate communication with the dead and departed. Harvey presents a captivating glimpse into the upper echelons of Victorian society by setting most of the action at Jasper’s Rosefield house party with representative character types and behaviours that reflect an attitude of entitlement and scorn for the “lower orders.” At every opportunity, the elegant and noble ladies treat Violet with contempt to underscore her lowly status in the social order although Elizabeth circumvents her mother’s objections by befriending Violet and sharing in her escapades. Because Harvey has researched the Victorian era well, for the most part, the language is appropriate for the historical period although occasionally modern phrases and expressions intrude. A strong-minded female protagonist with a supportive female friend and male love interests, a varied cast of secondary characters, plenty of well-paced action, an evolving mystery and ghostly presences, witty and realistic dialogue, rich historical detail, and well-crafted prose combine to produce an entertaining reading experience that should be especially appealing to fans of the paranormal.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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