Unfashioned Creatures by Lesley McDowell
Lesley McDowell’s second novel is a darkly Gothic tale of mental asylums, family secrets and illicit desires. Based on the life of Isabella Baxter Booth, a childhood friend of Mary Shelley, the novel juxtaposes her unravelling marriage, with all its attendant strains, with the faltering career of the fictional Dr Akexander Balfour, a fiercely ambitious psychiatrist with his own dark secrets. From the opening pages an atmosphere of dread pervades each scene. The writing, whilst wearing the research lightly, is rich in historical detail and full of suspense. Each meticulously observed detail seems darkly portentous, the dialogue hinting at buried resentments and fears.
Isabella’s disintegrating relationship with her increasingly violent husband, and the terrifying fits from which he suffers, are portrayed with excruciating clarity; we can sympathise with her plight and understand the murderous impulses she sometimes feels towards him. Isabella can be an unreliable narrator, however, and when her perspective differs from Alexander’s it can be difficult to know who to trust: a strength of the writing which creates added suspense. At the start of the novel Alexander seems the more logical, functional person, but we quickly become aware that his ambition, particularly when coupled with his lack of success or recognition, is skewing his perspective and affecting his decisions to a dangerous degree. Both Isabella and Alexander struggle with addictions, to laudanum and alcohol respectively, and in the sections where they are under the influence – drunk or drugged – the writing is at its best. Heightened images and broken, chaotic phrasing emphasise the fragility of the characters’ grasp on reality and, indeed, their own sanity. At times McDowell’s elliptical style can be a little frustrating for the reader. Her characters can feel a little elusive, their motivations unknowable. The writing is strongly rooted in place, however, and the various settings of the story – Scotland, England, Belgium – are well written.
The twin narrative structure offers us alternating chapters from Isabella and Alexander; a chance to see them side-byside as the story builds towards their first encounter. But coming almost halfway into the novel, the eventual meeting between them feels a little underwhelming, lacking in emotional impact, and the resulting
dynamic between the two characters doesn’t always convince. However as individuals Alexander and Isabella and their ruined lives are compelling, their voices convincing, and the writing, while describing heightened
emotions and gripping events, never succumbs to melodrama. Unfashioned Creatures is a dark and fascinating window into a Victorian world of asylums, troubled relationships and addiction.
— Richard Parker
Saraband, RRP £8.99, 292pp