Monday, 22 September 2014

Underwhelming gothic: The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate MosseThe Taxidermist's Daughter (11 September 2014) by Kate Mosse

I really don't like having to give negative reviews. They can be quite fun to write, but that doesn't make up for the time wasted reading a disappointing book, especially if, like me, you have a constantly expanding to-read list of several hundred potentially better others. Unfortunately, The Taxidermist's Daughter turned out to be another addition to 2014's growing batch of much-anticipated, but ultimately mediocre, new novels. (Funnily enough, The Independent's review of this book compares it to three other books from this year which I would categorise in exactly the same way.)

Connie Gifford is the titular taxidermist's daughter, though it would be more accurate to say she is the taxidermist. Her father has long been an incapable drunk, and Connie, having learnt his trade, secretly keeps the family business going. Not that there's much call for it: in the early twentieth century, taxidermy has fallen out of fashion, and with her father's 'world famous' museum gone, Connie struggles to make ends meet. She also struggles with her own condition: an accident when she was twelve wiped her memory, and she is only now beginning to remember flashes of her 'vanished years'. There's also the mystery of a murdered woman, found in the river next to the Giffords' house, and the links this crime may have to Something Terrible a group of local men (including, possibly, Connie's father) did ten years ago.

Connie is okay, but she is never truly established as a character who actually has any real personality, beyond a passion for taxidermy and, vaguely, a caring nature. The male characters, meanwhile, are so numerous and so utterly indistinct from one another that I couldn't tell them apart at all. Mosse has set the story in the West Sussex village of Fishbourne, apparently a place of personal significance to her, and it is evoked well, full of a Daphne du Maurier-esque stormy darkness despite the fact that the story takes place in spring. The most atmospheric scenes are set in a rain-lashed cottage; these sections, though very effective, are frustratingly few.

The Taxidermist's Daughter is very like Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black: the gothic gloom (it's 1912, but everything feels very Victorian), the use of bird motifs, but most of all, the dull, turgid story lumbering towards a largely uninteresting conclusion. And, like Bellman & Black, I'm giving the book a medium rating because it was simply okay: by no means terrible, simply underwhelming and forgettable. While it all started promisingly, and did start to pick up again after I was halfway through, too much of it was simply tedious. I didn't care what the men of Fishbourne had done ten years earlier - partly because the characters were uninteresting, partly because I knew from the start it would be something deliberately 'shocking' but also unbelievable as something these people would really take part in. (Spoiler: it was.) Interviews with the author suggest the theme of taxidermy stems from a childhood fascination with the art, but it often feels as if it has been chosen simply because it's suitably gruesome and archaic.

I've read one book from Mosse's Languedoc trilogy (Sepulchre), found it average, and haven't bothered with any of the others in that series. However, I really enjoyed her ghost story The Winter Ghosts, and last year she published a collection, The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales, which, while forgettable in terms of content, created a number of wonderfully atmospheric, wintery settings I can still remember quite vividly. I'd quite like to read it again for that reason alone. With all its gothic trappings, I hoped The Taxidermist's Daughter might be more of an ethereal ghost story than drab historical fiction, but sadly not. Competently written, with some intriguing scenes, it never quite gets off the ground, and in the end it is no more than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 5/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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