30 July 2013

The Skull and the Nightingale

Summary from Goodreads:
Michael Irwin’s The Skull and the Nightingale is a chilling and deliciously dark, literary novel of manipulation and sex, intrigue and seduction, set in 18th-century England.

When Richard Fenwick returns to London, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in Worcestershire, but feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling: love, passion, and something much more sinister.

It becomes apparent that Gilbert desires news filled with tales of carousing, flirtation, excess, and London’s more salacious side. But Gilbert’s elaborate and manipulative “experiments” into the workings of human behavior soon drag Richard into a Faustian vortex of betrayal and danger where lives are ruined and tragedy is only a step away.

With echoes of Dangerous Liaisons, Michael Irwin’s The Skull and the Nightingale is an urgent period drama that seduces the senses.

Fenwick returns to England fresh from his Grand Tour of the Continent in much the same position as he was when he left - dependent on his reclusive, distant godfather for an income.  When his godfather offers to fund Fenwick's lifestyle in return for detailed reports on his exploits, Fenwick doesn't even hesitate - he accepts.  He begins a round of socializing that begins as evenings of fairly benign carousing and, through his godfather's encouragement, grows slowly more debauched.

The Skull and the Nightingale was pitched to me because I liked Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Les Liaisons Dangereuses and was tonally similar to The Crimson Petal and the White. And there are a lot of similarities in time period and tone. At one point in the novel almost every major character from Les Liaisons Dangereuses is represented (one of my status updates on Goodreads reads: "It just went all Dangerous Liaisons and I didn't even see it coming. Well played, Michael Irwin, well played."). Richardson's Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady - complete with the dick-tacular Lovelace - becomes a running thread when Fenwick buys the entire multi-volume novel and a pretty little bag in which to carry it home. The writing and multi-layered characters made for great reading.

This was a good book, a good read, but I wanted more: more grit, more dirt, more moral ambiguity. One of the things I loved about Perfume was how grimy and messy and gross and beautifully described it was.  Fenwick, the protagonist of The Skull and the Nightingale, is a handsome young man in mid-eighteenth century London, but he seems to pale next to more vivid characters of the time period.  He's too neat and conflicted compared to Lovelace and Valmont who both perform terrible acts in the course of their books, only asking for absolution at the very end.  I was hoping for some floundering about in drrrty, drrrty morally squalid London but it didn't dig quite deep enough, IMO.  Even a Falstaffian character doesn't go as far as the book promised.

I'm not quite sure what to think about the novel as a whole. I was fairly sure I knew how the novel would end...but then it did something different. Quite a bit different. And I haven't decided if I like the author's choices or not - it came down to the very last page.  You'll have to read it and decide.

Dear FTC: I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher and a DRC via Edelweiss.

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