Trigger warnings for the review: some minor gore discussion
Trigger warnings for the book: gore, surgical/body horror, ghosts, unreality/reality shifting shenanigans, period-typical misogyny (period is, like, Regency/Victorian-ish?)
The Death of Jane Lawrence is a book I’ve once again deliberately stepped into while knowing very little about, and I’m very pleased to report that whether by luck or fate, this is absolutely, absolutely my shit. To be fair, I’ve already read – and adored – The Luminous Dead by the same author. So when I saw that Caitlin Starling had a gothic horror/ghost story coming out, I put that on my TBR faster than you can say “Daphne du Maurier”.
Still, it took me a while to get around to it, and new books are always a bit of a gamble. Jane Lawrence is mysterious from the start, with a main character who’s so uncanny about her own prospects and so organized that I was wondering (honestly dreading) that the reveal might be that she was a murderer. (Small spoilers: it’s not. Thankfully.) Jane Shoringfield is setting about finding herself the most suitable possible husband, now that her benefactors/employers are moving and not taking her with them. She wants a husband where there’ll be as little romance as possible, where she can make herself useful, and where there won’t be any fussing around about courtship or anything like that. After reviewing all the potential candidates, she makes her first choice Augustine Lawrence, reclusive doctor… who’s very surprised to hear about this. Especially since she has it all figured out ahead of time. (Having a wedding proposed To You like a job offer must be a bizarre experience. I truly, truly adore Jane as a character.)
After Jane helps him in his clinic, he accepts on one condition – she must never spend the night at Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town, where he has to spend every night. She’ll spend the nights at the clinic; he’ll sleep out there. Given Jane’s disinterest in sex/romance (at first, anyway – more on that) she’s fine with this. More concerning is the case she helps him with — where there is something growing in a man’s stomach. And despite their best efforts, despite a successful surgery, the man’s bowel turns necrotic during the night and he dies. An overheard conversation tips off Jane that there’s something more involved here; dark magic and meddling in the occult.
Of course, the nature of these stories means that obviously Jane ends up at Lindridge Hall. The story does some absolutely fantastic work with setting the tone and mood, and the dark magic and ghosts at work are both evocative of the long tradition Starling is working within and original enough to keep tripping up every prediction I made. The character work, however, is where I think I’m the most impressed. Jane Lawrence herself is a take on a particular archetype within older work (cf. Austen, the Brontes) and occasionally more modern literature, of the passed-over, overly-practical Plain Jane sibling/spinster/what have you. Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice is likely the most famous example, or at least the most instantly recognizable. But instead of entering into a loveless marriage and being punished for it, simply “making peace” with her lot, or just falling in love with Augustine with no other questions or demands, Jane is an active, questioning and flawed protagonist. Augustine, who in other books would be elevated or heroized, is both noble and pathetic, making choices that don’t feel like just “bad choices for plot” but the kind of squirrelly bad decisions that come naturally from his characterization. (And I have so much to say about the ending, but it’s best experienced without spoilers, truly.)
My one gripe with the book is ultimately a minor one, and one that only exists in context with the literary world as a whole. It was, I’ll admit, a bit disappointing when I realized about a quarter of the way into the book that Jane was falling in love with Augustine. I expected it; certainly I wasn’t disappointed with the narrative once I readjusted. But part of me enjoyed the set-up of a marriage of convenience with someone who came off as completely disinterested in sex/romance, but who could easily get embroiled in someone’s personal issues anyway. Ultimately, this isn’t that book, and I wouldn’t ask it to be any other book than it is, but it does make me a little sad that those characters still don’t exist as much as they could.
Otherwise, it’s a great read. Nothing jumped out at me in terms of bigotry, although I did wait a while before writing the review; the main thing is the misogyny inherent in the premise, and even that isn’t too bad. If you’re sensitive to gore, I’d give this one a miss. But if you like Mexican Gothic, Crimson Peak, Jane Eyre or Rebecca (the latter two of which I’m fairly certain are explicit influences) definitely pick up a copy.
The Death of Jane Lawrence is available through Barnes & Noble – or find it at your local indie store here!