Fanny–raised as a poor relation by her jocular Uncle Edgar–is ready to seize her opportunity to flee England and become one of Florence Nightingale’s nurses. Then, she sees the two small children that she came to London to meet. One glimpse of her uncle’s new (also impoverished) wards–who have been shipped all the way from China–convinces the young woman that she cannot leave them to grow up at Darkwater without her. How can she condemn them to the miserable childhood she herself endured?
Because she can only help Nolly and Marcus by returning to home and becoming their unofficial nursemaid and protector, Fanny gives up her dream of independence When the children’s amah, Ching Mei, is murdered, the secrets Darkwater (and its cast of strange, antagonistic characters) threaten to consume them all. Perhaps Adam Marsh–a man of mysterious origin who delivered Nolly and Marcus into Fanny’s care–is her only hope for survival.
Like many Gothic romances, Darkwater is difficult to describe without giving away the plot. As a suspense novel, plot is paramount. Fortunately, Dorothy Eden is up to the challenge of writing a dark mystery and has created a compelling book.
Darkwater‘s setting is the best that I’ve encountered of late. Eden’s world is full of moody descriptions and vivid images that allow the reader to put him or herself in the midst of the action. Her use of metaphor–though occasionally heavy-handed–is consistant, tying the story together neatly. If I were an artist, I could paint the rooms and grounds Fanny inhabits. If I were a sound designer, I’d be able to create Darkwater’s soundtrack. That, dear readers, is effective writing.
The massive cast of characters is no less intricately drawn. This is a good thing, since most of the mystery and tension in the novel comes from a combination of strange occurrences (not too common) and–much more frequently–from the seething tensions that lie buried in the breasts of the manor’s strange inhabitants.
Eden has a knack for switching her point of view in the middle of a scene, allowing us glimpses into the minds of many different personages. At first, the sudden shifts are confusing. I was left wondering why Fanny knew so well what was going on in the heads of her Aunt Louisa, cousin Amelia, and Uncle Edgar. Then, I caught on to Eden’s trick. Once I got what she was doing, I was able to navigate her prose with more ease.
This narrative trick serves to give us just enough information about the conflicting perceptions and desires of Darkwater’s inhabitants. We learn about their wants, needs, and assumptions–their dark secrets and disappointments. Because we, the reader, see so many sides of the story, the web of mystery deepens. A “mystery” whose solution might have been obvious if told from one point of view becomes convoluted (in a good way). The reader can never quite pinpoint the source of the danger and darkness that hovers over Darkwater like the fog.
It’s impossible to describe all of Eden’s characters, but there are several standouts. Although Fanny is the centerpiece of the story (and is, thankfully, no wet noodle), other characters make impressions: the amiable but puffed-up and self-important Uncle Edgar; her unhinged cousin George, whose head-injury in the war has transformed him from a mere bully to a threatening creeper with an obsession with our heroine; and the Machiavellian Lady Arabella, Edgar’s elderly, horror-story-telling mother-in-law, who is willing to sacrifice anything to get George what he wants. Even Nolly, the angry, orphaned little girl, has a vivid character and plays a vital role in Eden’s plot.
If I have one complaint about the characterizations in Darkwater, it is that the women (especially Amelia and Aunt Louisa) are a bit ‘thin.’ Neither are blessed with intelligence (ok, not everyone in the world is smart, I get it), but in addition to their lack of brains, they are hopelessly self-centered and avaricious. Though Amelia has more redeeming qualities, Louisa remains a caricature.
I wish that the basic qualities of these major female characters were something more than “selfish” and “money-obsessed.” Of course, it is typical in a Gothic novel that women–other than the heroine–are painted in unflattering tones. However, since it is clear from her other characters that Eden can do better, I’m disappointed that she stereotypes these women. She doesn’t do that with her male characters.
As for romance: like so many of the Gothics I got in my big box of books, Eden’s novel is focused more on the mystery than the love interest. Nevertheless, the hero does have a presence throughout the book. I am happy to see him with Fanny, because if nothing else, he promises a happier future than her past.
All in all, Darkwater is an outstanding novel. It was a creepy-delight to read, and I recommend it highly.