You can ply your needle with any emotion in the human heart and the thread will absorb it. You can sew with tenderness, you can stitch yourself from panic to calm, you can sew with hate.
So says Ruth Butterham a, poor 16 year-old orphan accused of a shocking murder and the heart of Laura Purcell’s (The Silent Companions) new novel, The Poison Thread. Dorothea Truelove is a beautiful, rich young woman with a passion for charitable work and phrenology. (Not necessarily in that order.) To test her theory that the shape of a person’s skull can determine their character she could find no better test case than Ruth. But the story Ruth relates is as an unexpected as it is horrifying. Ruth’s tale begins with as vicious a schoolyard beating as I’ve read and it only gets worse from there in a narrative filled with sorrow and fury. Ruth believes that she has developed the dark gift of being able to harm others through the stitches she knits. Is Ruth a liar? Or have the tragedies and terrors she’s endured driven her mad? Or is Ruth in fact cursed? Purcell keeps us wondering and I found myself unintentionally reading the entire book in one sitting. It is a novel that is as disquieting as it is compelling.
Set in Victorian England, The Poison Thread alternates between the narrative voices of Dorothea and Ruth. Two more disparate women than the privileged Dorothea and impoverished Ruth would be hard to find, yet fate has brought them together and there seems to be an invisible thread connecting the two. Purcell crafts a macabre vision and the possible supernatural horrors co-exist alongside all too familiar and mundane miseries in a world without modern medicine. The worst of human cruelty is on full display here. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of horror is poverty itself. Ruth’s work as a seamstress has her laboring endless hours over the fine gowns of rich ladies while she goes hungry. The opulence and finery that women of Dorothea’s station take for granted is only made possible by the heartless exploitation of others. At one point, Ruth is forced to work on the wedding trousseau of the childhood enemy who beat her and Ruth takes that opportunity to exact a gruesome revenge. Ruth’s own mother had been born a gentlewoman but an imprudent marriage brings her down into squalor and suffering while her daughter is reduced to a form of slavery.
Romantics might say love is everything and money makes no difference; Ruth and Dorothea see all too clearly this isn’t so. Which complicates things considerably for Dorothea who has secretly contracted a romance with a man far beneath her station. In fact, it turns out Dorothea may have more than one secret of her own. The narrative twists and turns and keeps you guessing until the very last page. And even after the final denouement, the questions raised keep you up in the middle of the night.
Top photo: Bigstock
The Poison Thread