My rating: 2 stars
Unfortunately, a beautiful cover doesn’t always wrap up a captivating story. The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin had the potential to be a good book, but its premise isn’t well developed, it lacks atmosphere, and the writing style is far from appealing. Two women with growing feelings for one another try to discover why people are going missing all over London in 1831. The reason behind the disappearances is interesting. If the sole focus of the novel had been on that mystery and the plot hadn’t been so meandering, this could at least have been a satisfactory read.
The main character and narrator, Hester, lives in London with her father’s former gardener, Jacob, and his wife, Meg. Both her parents died, her mother in childbirth and her father of typhoid fever. Her current neighbourhood is plagued by poverty, a condition she desperately wants to escape. She is trying to find her cousin Edward, whom she believes can get her a job outside of London. While looking for him, she is run over by a carriage. Inside is Mr Calder Brock, a 25-year-old physician. He takes her to his home to tend her injured leg. A couple of days after, he insists on taking her with him to the country where he will continue to provide her proper medical care.
That isn’t his only purpose, however. Mr Brock also plans to prove through her that even poor people from the gutter can be educated. He is to join the board of ‘The London Society for the Suppression of Mendacity’ and wants to change people’s perception of poverty. The maids warn her to be careful with Miss Rebekah, his sister, because two girls that were working for her have recently disappeared.
Hester doesn’t tell them that she has had an education at the parsonage where she grew up. She wants to impress Calder and Rebekah, show them that she can learn quickly. Her aim is to get a job at a country house. Rebekah, who is 27 years old, is reluctant to teach her, since she doesn’t share her brother’s way of thinking. But she ends up accepting the mission. Once, as she is waiting for her lesson, Hester takes a look at Rebekah’s papers and finds some notes about the disappearances of the maids Martha and Agnes. They reveal her efforts to understand what happened.
Despite being unsure about what Rebekah thinks of her, Hester starts to admire her immensely. She makes sure to mention that she doesn’t fully understand her feelings, but they keep on growing. Rebekah’s mind-set is difficult to discern at first, since the book is narrated by Hester in the present tense. At times, it seems that Rebekah enjoys Hester’s company. However, when she returns from London, where she spent Christmas time, Hester overhears her saying that she intends to dismiss her, seeing that “her intellectual faculties are as deficient as her attitude”.
Heartbroken, Hester leaves the house taking with her Rebekah’s diary, through which we the learn more about her personality. As she is gathering her belongings, she finds an unsigned note that says that she should have never gone to Waterford Hall.
The writing style is one of the weaknesses of this novel. There is too much telling and not enough showing. The first time this seriously bothered me was when Hester is explaining what she does during her lessons. I wish those moments had been narrated in more detail, showing more of her interactions with Rebekah. Instead, they almost resemble a list of activities. We are also told that the characters have certain feelings, but they don’t transpire through the page very often. On one occasion, the author manages to convey that Hester is experiencing desire through the effects it has on her. But then unnecessarily directly states that she is feeling desire. That was already obvious. There is no need to state it when for once these almost wooden characters are shown to have feelings.
Although there are people disappearing around London, I didn’t feel an aura of mystery throughout the book. Occasionally, adjectives are used to try to convey a desolate and enigmatic atmosphere. It rarely works, though. There are plenty of descriptions, but I couldn’t visualise any of the settings. They are soulless. I also didn’t feel anything closer to gloom when I was supposed to.
“But a certain gloom has settled in her wake, and we take our stools again and sit in silence.”
The plot is not particularly gripping, because it’s not well structured and is unduly meandering. Some events feel too forced and just create further complications that aren’t strictly necessary for the clarification of what seems to be the main mystery – various people disappearing in London. It feels like some of the revelations about the characters are at different times either too convenient or too far-fetched.
I had high hopes for The Wicked Cometh, but Laura Carlin’s writing style is not for me. The fact that I still had a mild curiosity to discover the reason behind the disappearances was what kept me reading. It’s a shame that certain characters’ activities were not more delved into in some way.