A Treacherous Likeness
By Lynn Shepherd
Published by Corsair
We began before thick in autumn fog; we open now in the fury of a west and winter wind. Above us high loose clouds drive across a steep grey sky, and beneath our feet the dead leaves are driven before the unseen air like ghosts from an enchanter. Yellow and black and pale and hectic red, they swirl in dry squalls into narrow corners and lift in sudden gusts from the muddy gutters.
In the dying days of 1850 the young detective Charles Maddox takes on a new case. His client? The only surviving son of the long-dead poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein. Charles soon finds himself being drawn into the bitter battle being waged over the poet’s literary legacy, but then he makes a chance discovery that raises new doubts about the death of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, and he starts to question whether she did indeed kill herself, or whether what really happened was far more sinister than suicide.
As he’s drawn deeper into the tangled web of the past, Charles discovers darker and more disturbing secrets, until he comes face to face with the terrible possibility that his own great-uncle is implicated in a conspiracy to conceal the truth that stretches back more than thirty years. The story of the Shelleys is one of love and death, of loss and betrayal. In this follow-up to the acclaimed Tom-All-Alone’s, Lynn Shepherd offers her own fictional version of that story, which suggests new and shocking answers to mysteries that still persist to this day, and have never yet been fully explained.
This is a hugely ambitious novel: its authorial narrative technique, its use of extensive research, its deft characterisation, its cohesive structure but most of all its central idea of weaving a fictional account into and around the factual gaps in the Shelley family’s story.
‘A Treacherous Likeness’ is a jolly good read. It is a tightly plotted, rollicking ride that twists this way and that way, with a pace Dickens would have been proud of. It has a very atmospheric setting of Victorian London, vivid descriptions and imaginative use of the senses – lots of fog and stench and poverty. The characterization is deep and believable, particularly of Claire Claremont and Shelley himself. They are complex and complicated. The use of diary entries and letters helps with this, giving the story an authentic edge and coercing us to believe the potential of this truth that Shepherd has constructed.
The tone and narrative style make the novel a clever pastiche of Victorian literature. This is no criticism as I have really enjoyed other novels like this – ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles and ‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters, to name two. This is essentially a gothic melodrama about the Romantics. We travel from England to Italy in the company of legendary figures, with an omniscient narrator who propels us from the present to the past with great gusto and panache.
But … does this work for a modern reader? It draws attention to the writer at work. We can see the puppet pulling the strings. Contemporary novels guide us into a character’s consciousness and so it is strange to be under the control of this type of narrator, a Godlike being who can see into the minds of all the characters and who can leap through time with a magician’s touch. I’m still thinking about this…
There is no question that I enjoyed this novel. But, some doubts: What is the relationship between biography and fiction? Is it fair to cast Mary Shelley as such a villain? Others have queried her authorship of Frankenstein but the accusations in this novel leave me with an uncomfortable feeling, haunted by the ghosts of these real people whose lives were entwined with tragedy and a toxic mix of personalities and circumstance. Was Mary Shelley really this horrific? Do the living have the right to play God with the dead? I leave you with that thought.
Maybe you should read ‘A Treacherous Likeness’ and decide for yourself.
This review first appeared in Serendipity Reviews on 11th April 2013