Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

 I received an arc of this book from the publisher. That did not influence this review.

Kim Taylor Blakemore (author of The Companion) has a new novel that is equally dark, eerie, and wonderful: After Alice Fell.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Marion Abbott returns to her family home in New Hampshire after a stint as a battlefield nurse. Her husband is a casualty of the war. Her return is not a joyful one. Her first action is to retrieve the body of her sister, Alice Snow, from an insane asylum. Alice fell from the roof, or so Marion is told.

Marion doesn’t believe she is being told the whole truth. For one thing, what was her sister doing on the roof?

The family home is now occupied by her younger brother, Lionel, his second wife, Cathy, and their teenage son, Toby. When Marion left home to help with the war effort, she left Alice in the care of her brother and his first wife, Lydia. Alice needed care because she was mentally ill. It had always fallen to Marion to care for her. The burden could be overwhelming at times and nursing the wounded was, in some ways, an escape. However, she never would have left her had she known that Lydia would drown, Lionel would marry Cathy, and the pair of them would have Alice committed.

When the director of the asylum tries to deflect Marion’s questions with the answer that Alice did not fall, she jumped, Marion is even more convinced something is wrong. Alice was not violent. Alice was not suicidal. Marion believes she was murdered and she goes about trying to prove it.

The novel is steeped in themes of death, madness, and secrets. The Snow family is hiding many secrets. Marion is hiding a few of her own. 

There is a gothic atmosphere in the book. The fear of madness is a strong element. The fear of being thought mad is even stronger. The more Marion pursues the seemingly wild idea that her sister was murdered, the more she invites comparison with her sister. She is essentially friendless in her old hometown. People have always feared the Snows, as if madness were contagious. And her brother and sister-in-law want to bury the past and move on. 

This beautifully written novel is so suspenseful that it is at times hard to read. I was filled with dread, wondering if Marion was in over her head, then wondering if maybe Marion was not as reliable a narrator as I’d thought (could she be the mad one?). As her world spirals out of control, I had to fly through the pages to see how it would end. Although I was left with unanswered questions, it is nevertheless a satisfying read.

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