Epeolatry Book Review: Unquiet by E. Saxey
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Author: E. Saxey
Genre: Gothic Horror, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Titan Books
Release date: 18 July 2023
Page count: 320
Synopsis: An intrepid young woman journeys across Victorian London and beyond in search of the truth behind the presumed death, and reappearance one icy evening, of her brother-in-law, in this gripping and mysterious gothic horror.
Perfect for fans of The Haunting of Hill House and readers of Sarah Waters.
London 1893. Judith lives a solitary life, save for the maid who haunts the family home in which she resides. Mourning the death of her brother-in-law, Sam, who drowned in an accident a year earlier, she distracts herself with art classes, books and strange rituals, whilst the rest of her family travel the world.
One icy evening, conducting a ritual in her garden she discovers Sam, alive. He has no memory of the past year, and remembers little of the accident that appeared to take his life.
Desperate to keep his reappearance a secret until she can discover the truth about what happened to him, Judith journeys outside of the West London Jewish community she calls home, to the scene of Sam’s accident. But there are secrets waiting there for Judith, things that have been dormant for so long, and if she is to uncover all of them, she may have to admit to truths that she has been keeping from herself.
“‘And you could put columbine all around him in the ivy border. The flower code, you know? To show that he’s lying.’”
Unquiet has fast become a favorite book of the year, if not my entire personal library. It is a stunning debut novel that shows off the author’s mastery of storytelling through pacing, atmosphere and prose craft. E. Saxey delivers an expert balance of lyricism and precision in their gorgeous writing, fleshes out rich characters that you suddenly can’t live without, and feels into the corners of the Gothic to both honor and subvert its tropes. Weaving meticulous nuance and promise into the smallest of moments, it is uncanny in its ability to dabble entirely in the gray while being thoroughly satisfying from start to finish.
Immediately, the story is an achingly beautiful rendering of grief complicated by guilt and desire. It brims with intense, repressed longing, frustrated yearning. Judith is deep in the mire of a disenfranchised mourning period that has fought for its own quiet space in which to pass through her. “When he died, that scorched the love out of me.” She drags her independence out from under her family by pushing them away to the continent, dismissing her chaperone and shedding almost all vestiges of her life before the accident that changed everything. Judith maintains her family home in affluent London and clings to a tenuous privacy in which her sadness can spread itself out. Her loneliness and her need for space are made heartbreakingly real in her acute awareness of her position in society – a Jewish woman among a non-Jewish majority, the public eye forms a very real threat to her reputation and thus her freedom. With this perspective, Unquiet provides restorative representation that brings the genre into the present.
Finding an outlet for expression in art, Judith also finds friendship, and perhaps some sense of control. She devises her own comforts in simple, personal rituals that can only really exist in the peace of her isolation. Alone, she is able to throw herself completely into her own rhythms and thoughts; those that disturb and gratify her pain. And when the revelation of Sam, alive, presents itself to her during a ritual in the garden, she allows herself a moment to reel in its fantastical impossibility before imposing some structure upon the problem. [Mild spoilers ahead.] She will give him one week to remember where he has been. And with the promise of that looming deadline, we follow with eager anticipation her determined delve into the awful mysteries of this man whom she should not love as she does.
Swimming in dreams and memories, “recorded in lake water”, the story surfaces one piercing shard at a time, crystallizing gradually into a picture of terribly preventable tragedy that Judith has entwined with her Romanticism in order to hide from herself the disappointing ugliness of its mundanity. Our astute, instinctive heroine picks at the edges of visible truth and gradually she is disillusioned.
Where Judith is spiritual and artistic, observant and determined, Sam is capricious, carefree and leaves others to clean up his mess. He is so wildly free with powerful declarations of obviously impossible affection and commitment that they are completely tantalizing. Upend your life for me. His charm is a spell that could send a woman mad if she let herself believe in it. Between this intense, impossible pairing, you know you’re not coming out of this story with one implacable account of the events. Its emotional truth, however, is teeming. It is generous with the most deniable, least accepted of feelings, which in their tenacity overshadow and then dredge up quieter, less sensational losses. This is a horror of heartache.
Among the subverted Gothic tropes are gender flips of the servile snark and the runaway fiancé, but the story is also awash with more recognizable ones. If you’re a fan of ghostly guests, parallels, unreliable narrators, mud brides, golems, questionable reality, empathic weather, destructive fires, scorned women, divination, the wild old ways of the countryside, small-town secrets, flashbacks and melancholy string music, then you’ll leave the book happy. Or, indeed, bereft, as I find myself, longing to return to it.
Ambiguous and elusive throughout, it culminates in the beginnings of Judith’s awakening from her deepest grief, now trying to make sense of what she has seen and done. Scarce enough evidence is provided for the cases of both dream and reality, that one can cling hopefully to whichever calls to them more strongly. Everything is possible.
A beautifully fitting novel with which to honor the life and work of English writer Amy Levy, to whom the book is dedicated; one that very much speaks to her heart, art and mind.
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