Book Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

It’s going to be hard for me to review this book without spoilers because the plot is a convoluted one with lots of twists and turns that you just have to read to enjoy, but I will try. “The Death of Jane Lawrence” by Caitlin Starling at first seems like it will be your typical Gothic novel full of tropes. I have very mixed feelings about it in the end for spoilery reasons. It’s got the spooky old house in the provincial countryside; it’s got a handsome, mysterious doctor with a woman locked in a cellar, reminiscent of Jane Eyre; it’s got a feisty heroine who thinks she knows what she wants and defies societal expectations.

But it’s different in that it is a dark-mirror alternate universe version of England in which after a war with this universe’s version of Russia, religion of all kinds basically becomes obsolete, even though people still practice the old religions of magic and witchcraft in secret. Jane is an orphan, raised by guardians, who doesn’t want to return to Camhurst, the scene of a pitched battle that brings up ugly memories. So she contrives a plan to marry the single doctor in town, Augustine Lawrence, a business arrangement, who turns out far more charming than she expected. He only has one rule – that she not return to Lindridge Hall at night.

Best-laid intentions go awry and she discovers the reasons for his secrets. At night at the crumbling old mansion, designed by magicians, the practical doctor is haunted by visions and supposed ghosts.

It is there that the plot takes a turn into the unique. Jane is a bookkeeper and a mathematician with a head for numbers; I thought it was interesting how she started thinking of magic spells like mathematical proofs. The universe that Starling created was fascinating and unique. The twist behind the ghosts-but-not-ghosts also surprised me and was quite inventive.

My mixed feelings come in because I found the prose annoyingly overwrought and emotional, which granted is a genre trope, but I don’t care for that writing style and voice. And Jane is painted as a practical woman with nerves of steel during her first bloody surgical operation, and then she falls to hysterics when she thinks the house might be haunted by the doctor’s dead wife; even her approach to magic is frantic, manic and not that of a sensible, practical person. I would have thought she would have been skeptical until pushed to believe otherwise but we were expected to believe that her character changed on the turn of a dime. As a result I didn’t care for the main character and I found her inconsistent and unreliable, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I found the characters poorly written.

However, the storytelling is excellent and the universe behind the story is richly imagined. A nice addition overall to the staid gothic canon currently on tap.

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