Channelling the likes of Alias Grace and The Unseeing, The Poison Thread tells a terrifying tale of confinement and madness. Dorothea Truelove, a perfectly saccharine name for the Victorian charity do-gooder, is a adherent to the study of phrenology. She visits Ruth Butterham, a teenaged seamstress, in Oakgate Prison and begins to suspect there is more to the girl’s story. Told in alternating narratives, the reader learns about Ruth’s misfortunes and Dora’s misguided altruism.
Set in the early Victorian era, Purcell highlights the lack of options within a strict society. Dora is a wealthy daughter, set to inherit a great deal, and has nothing to do with her time but play elite charmer until she meets an equally wealthy beau. She has convinced herself she is helping the neglected by visiting prisoners, but it quickly becomes clear she has ulterior motives.
Ruth is a bright child who takes over her mother’s fine embroidery jobs as the woman loses her sight. With her mother eventually blinded, Ruth is sold into indentured servitude to a dressmaker. She and the other girls are abused and ill-fed, all while working long days in terrible conditions to make glamorous gowns for wealthy ladies.
Despite her efforts, and obvious value as an excellent seamstress, life never seems to give her a break. Then she notices that when she sews in anger or full of vengeful thoughts, some calamity befalls the wearer. She begins to think she has the ability to harm through the stab of her needle.
There is plenty for the Victorian fan to smile about. A pet bird named Wilkie, Scheele’s green arsenical fabric, bizarre madness among the upper classes. There is even a nod to the inimitable and unendurable Miss Clack in The Moonstone:
No sooner did I begin my descent of the staircase then I heard a high laugh tinkle from the drawing room. It shivered up my arms and made me wince. The Pearce woman, here already. .. I was forced to endure the clasp of her hands and a kiss on either cheek. A cloud of jasmine emanated from her skin and made me choke — it was as though I had bitten into a bar of soap. Pg. 140-1
Like The Silent Companions, the novel ends with an odd twist. I actually read the last few pages twice to make sure I knew what was happening. Even now, I’m not entirely sure. It leaves one with a lunching stomach, being on a creaking carnival ride. It’s fun, but you feel a little off-kilter when you’re done.
My thanks to Kristina at Viking/Penguin for the advanced copy.
This book was published in the UK under the title The Corset.
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books (June 18, 2019)
Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches