The Herald - The Herald Magazine
School of Gothic forces
THE ILLNESS LESSON Clare Beams
(Black Swan, £8.99) In 1871 Massachusetts, utopianist Samuel Hood sets up the School for the Trilling Heart, a progressive institution intended to produce educated, independently minded women. His daughter Caroline is one of the school’s two teachers and she lives in fear that she will manifest signs of the disease that killed her mother, fear heightened by the appearance of red birds previously seen at her mother’s death. Almost immediately, Hood’s ideals are compromised when the reality of free-thinking girls collides with his paternalistic vision.
The pupils start to come down with a mysterious ailment, which his doctor friend diagnoses as hysteria and treats with methods which nowadays would be seen as shockingly invasive. Beams’ highly readable but unsettling debut novel has a 19th-century elegance and Gothic tone attuned perfectly to its themes of shadows from the past, omens, men’s control over women’s bodies and the hint of a malign force just beyond our ken.
A PERFECT CEMETERY Federico Falco
The small Edinburgh publishing house Charco presents Argentinian author Falco’s first British publication, a collection of five short stories set in the mountains of Cordoba. Economical and well crafted, these are deceptively simple tales of rural lives revealing their underlying richness. They include the King of the Hares, who rejects society to live in the forest on stolen food until his abandoned wife finds him; the young girl who renounces her faith and, much to her Catholic mother’s annoyance, becomes infatuated with a visiting Mormon missionary; an old man mourning the chopping-down of all the trees he has sown, who is driven from his home by loggers and has to seek a husband for his daughter; and the century-old man who frustrates an architect’s efforts to build a cemetery of which he is expected to be one of the first occupants. Falco portrays them with intelligence and acute insight in this set of exquisite miniatures.
THE PRANK LV Matthews
(Wellbeck, £8.99) Having suffered 14 years of guilt over her father’s death, Eleanor Greene discovers that a television prank show may have led directly to him taking his own life, and swears vengeance upon the man behind the show. The most fitting way of getting back at him would be to make him the subject of a colossal prank. But how far dare she go? Matthews’ debut novel is grounded in the psychology of an ordinary woman who feels driven to leave behind the person she used to be and become the kind of person who can wreak a terrible revenge. Enveloped by a growing sense of impending disaster, an already tense and uncomfortable novel becomes hard to put down once Eleanor’s preoccupation with vengeance reaches obsessive levels.