Book Review: The Walworth Beauty by Michèle Roberts

In Victorian London, Joseph Benson takes a position as a research assistant, documenting the lives of London’s poor. He is assigned to record the details of prostitutes; a task which sits uneasily against his own preconceptions and baser desires, serving only to highlight his dissatisfaction with his own life. He finds himself in Apricot Place, drawn to the lodging house of the enigmatic Mrs Dulcimer.

A hundred and fifty years later, literature academic Madeleine finds herself single, childless, and unemployed. Drawn towards a fresh start and a sense of community lacking in her riverside apartment complex, she moves to Apricot Place, into a basement flat which was once Mrs Dulcimer’s kitchen. But rather than leaving the historical echoes of London behind, Madeleine finds herself haunted as pieces of the building’s colourful past slip into the present.

The Walworth Beauty is a carefully crafted, unconventional ghost story. The time-slip hauntings are subtly constructed, with some early details which were seemingly red herrings withholding their relevance until the end of the book. The dual storylines weave together beautifully, with elements of each bleeding into the other. There is an undercurrent of a critical examination of sexuality, as both plots explore desire and sexual agency. Joseph believes the prostitutes he interviews perform a valuable service for men who keep virtuous wives, establishing the Madonna/whore dichotomy; however he is shocked to discover that he has been commodified by his own wife. Madeleine feels threatened when a casual acquaintance expects more than just a drink, realising he doesn’t share her view that she is free to give as much or as little of herself as she likes.

Author Michèle Roberts is a sophisticated wordsmith. The unusual structure and language register make The Walworth Beauty a pleasantly challenging read, and the dual eras introduce an extensive cast, requiring considerable concentration from the reader. The two plots are written in different tenses, a testament to Roberts’ skill. The brief change in tense of one plot when the two eras collide is a small but clever device that enhances meaning without adding words, again requiring attention to the nuances of the writing beyond simply following the story. Readers with this focus are handsomely rewarded, as much of the beauty in Roberts’s prose lies in her rich detail, capturing the essence of London across both eras with a fine attention to the senses that bring both to vivid life.

Amanda McLeod is a Canberra-based author and artist, with several short fiction works published in print and online. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites.

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