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The Death of Jane Lawrence cover

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

(Titan Books, 2022)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is a dark and deeply weird book. Set in an alternative nineteenth century England, whose capital is ‘Camhurst’, it opens with the protagonist, Jane Shoringfield, formally meeting her soon-to-be husband, Dr. Augustine Lawrence. Having lost her parents in the war with Ruzka, Jane has been brought up by her guardians, Mr and Mrs Cunningham, in the small town of Larrenton. With Mr Cunningham about to take up a judgeship in Camhurst, however, Jane must find her own way in the world and so she decides to marry but purely as a business agreement. With her mathematically trained mind and having kept her guardian’s ledgers, she feels she has a lot to offer a small-town GP. Dr Lawrence, for his part, tries to put her off, emphasising that there will be blood ‘and great sadness and terror’. He even adds an inviolable stipulation—he must spend his nights at his ancestral home, several miles outside of town and she can never join him there.

This, of course, only strengthens her resolve that it should be no more than a professional arrangement, a resolve that almost immediately starts to crumble. After helping with a patient who has an appalling stomach wound, from which a curious Möbius-like mass is removed, Jane finds herself having feelings for the good doctor that clearly go beyond the ‘professional’. And after the post-wedding dinner at the decaying Lindridge Hall, her attempt to return to Larrenton is stymied due to heavy rain which washes out the only road. As a result, she is forced to spend the night, very much against her husband’s wishes.

At this point the novel slips into full-on gothic mode as Jane struggles with her relationship with her new husband, as well as the claustrophobic environment of the house and the growing awareness that there is something deeply awry with both. Her uncertainty over what she is feeling and also seeing in the depths of the night, is convincingly portrayed, as is her retreat into the certitudes of mathematics. At times, however, I felt the writing became a little over-wrought and I also expected her arithmetic reflections, on the nature of zero in particular, to be more explicitly connected to the bizarre goings-on than they were. The alternative world of ‘Great Breltain’ might also have been fleshed out in greater detail but Jane herself is presented as a complex, multi-faceted character, beset by painful childhood memories from the war and doubting her abilities as a world of horror-drenched magic opens up before her. The manner in which she overcomes these doubts and grows in power is not straightforward, however, and Starling nicely sets out the false starts and mistakes that Jane makes along the way. Some of these, indeed, lead to disaster, not least where Dr. Lawrence is concerned and much of the second half of the book is taken up with Jane’s efforts to save him. At this point the oppressive atmosphere thickens to an almost unsustainable degree, until she manages to find a way through the miasma and the tension breaks with a disturbing twist in the conclusion. (And yes, the title is a spoiler. Of sorts!)

This was not an easy read. And not just because of the body-horror and reality slippages. At times it was frustrating, as Jane appeared unable to break free from her situation. No doubt this was intentional, but it gives the book a certain static quality which coupled with the lack of a straightforward resolution undermines any easy satisfaction. Having said that, many of its passages are genuinely creepy and there are various images that will certainly linger in the mind. This is a book to be read curled up in armchair in a well-lit room but definitely not right before bedtime!

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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