Review: The Somnambulist by Essie Fox



The Somnambulist

by Essie Fox

Historical Fiction | 405 Pages | Published by Orion in 2012


| Rating |


I first discovered the work of Essie Fox through her blog, The Virtual Victorian. I had been writing my dissertation and had been musing on Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, a Victorian fragrance inspired by Turkish Baths, when a random search took me into Fox’s world of Victoriana. After reading through countless posts I discovered that Essie Fox had also become a published author of fiction. I knew that if I saw The Somnambulist I would buy it; Fox’s blog was so aligned with my own interests that I was certain her novel would win me over. And I did just that. Then the deadlines came thick and fast, reading time was down to a minimum, and here I am several years later having only just read it!

The Somnambulist is a haunting tale of life, love and loss in Victorian England. Phoebe Turner lives under the rule of her strict, fanatical mother in the East End of London and takes every opportunity to escape into the world of the music halls where, dazzled by the lights and sounds, she watches her aunt Cissy perform. But when a dark and mysterious stranger turns up at Wilton’s Music Hall, Phoebe’s universe is turned upside down. Through heartbreak and pain, Phoebe is whisked off for a new life at Dinwood Court – a life of comparative luxury. But appearances can be deceiving. Dark secrets and lies hide beneath the surface and threaten to become exposed at every turn. Haunted by past mistakes, broken promises and cries in the night, Phoebe must unravel the past and find the truth at the heart of Dinwood. Nothing will ever be the same again.

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The Somnambulist is a beautiful tale, which Essie Fox has written in an incredibly poignant and honest way. It thrives on its power to convey the reality and complexity of life; the tough choices we all must make, the truths we must conceal, and the hardships we must endure. Written entirely from Phoebe’s perspective, the descriptive style of narrative makes her every thought and action, her entire world, come alive. From the rough and grimy streets of London to the imposing and atmospheric beauty of Dinwood Court, Victorian England becomes vivid and real.

This novel sets the stage for a whole cast of characters. No one is wholly good, nor are they wholly bad, they’re just very real. They lie, they cheat, they make mistakes; they care, they love, and they forge ahead with good intentions and bad luck. Phoebe is a very likeable protagonist who is incredibly easy to empathise with and care for, and the rest of the cast are well fleshed out and given room to grow. Essie Fox has written a book which successfully captures the duality of human emotion and personality, and weaves it through the narrative to create a haunting, but ultimately believable, story.

Though some may find the ‘plot twists’ predictable and there are several instances where it is hard not to know what will happen next, I felt more like a voyeur. I was watching Phoebe make the wrong choices, I knew the pain and heartbreak that lay ahead, and I could see the way a road would lead as she stumbled on down it. This is, after all, historical fiction and isn’t a crucial element of history knowing the outcome whilst continuing to unravel the story behind it? However much you may feel like Old Riley by the end of it, this book isn’t diminished by the lack of ‘surprise’.

And maybe this book holds a special place in my heart – my great grandparents were also Music Hall Artistes in late Victorian Britain – but I truly think there is magic to be found in The Somnambulist. This is an enchanting, haunting and utterly compelling tale which cast its spell over me from start to finish and which I, quite literally, couldn’t put down.

…And thank you Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet for leading me to the musings of an author I feel sure I will read for years to come.

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