This compelling novel was originally called ‘The Whores Asylum’ but was apparently renamed to appease a certain chain of stationery stores who thought the title a bit much, despite being happy to stock popular S&M erotica and those amateur photography mags with half-naked women on the front. I’m not knocking either publication but that decision smacks appropriately of the kind of hypocrisy unraveled in the novel now called ‘The Unpierced Heart’. On reflection, however, I think the new title is actually a better fit. Hearts are pierced throughout the narrative, both literally and figuratively and the conclusion is likely to have the same effect on the reader.
The book is formed of five interlinked novellas, each written from the point of view of a different character, perhaps to emulate a series of penny dreadfuls, although that description does this beautifully written, elegant book a disservice. The variety ensures we don’t stay too long with the first narrator, Edward Fraser, who can be a bit of a prig although fortunately his dry recollection is leavened by outbursts worthy of Victorian Dad in Viz. Edward’s best friend, Stephen Chapman, has fallen under the spell of the enigmatic Diana Pelham. Mrs Pelham has a questionable past and unfortunately for her Edward knows what it is…
The author cleverly uses contrasting points of view, all but the last one male and imbued with the unthinking chauvinism of the time. Even the saintly Chapman falls foul of it, to his endless regret. Indeed, regret is one of the main outcomes as characters attempt to negotiate the often claustrophobic vagaries of their environment. The book is essentially a tragedy that uses these different points of view to unfold a satisfyingly complex story while setting up a series of character arcs that invert expectations, both ours and those of the characters. This structure allows Katy Darby to create an ending that is both unpredictable and incredibly moving.
The language too is a delight, from the poetic imagery to the rhythms of Victorian diction. So beguiling is it that even in penning this review I perforce found myself expunging many a baroque interlocution. Or not as the case may be.
Themes of poverty and disease, neither of which are the exclusive preserve of the ‘lower classes’, underpin the ambitions of the characters, giving the story a harshly naturalistic feel. These themes also act as metaphors for the kind of ignorance and intolerance that are still very much with us. The novel looks at how love literally becomes poisoned and it is these sequences that take us close to gothic horror, particularly in the chapter narrated by Diana. Here, poverty and disease meet in the person of the psychopathic Lord Kester, whose nickname, ‘Lucky’, is the most striking of the book’s many ironies.
A richly satisfying read.