Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'A Treacherous Likeness' by Lynn Shepherd

First, there was the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, which saw Jane Austen’s much-loved classic re-imagined as a riveting Victorian murder mystery.  Then came the darkly gripping Tom-All-Alone’s, a thriller set in the shadow of Dickens’s Bleak House. And now author Lynn Shepherd has done it again with her third outing, A Treacherous Likeness.  Except this time, her fiction centres not on characters and settings from classic Victorian novels, but on real events and real people. 

However, this does not mean that A Treacherous Likeness is in any way less influenced by Victorian literature than her previous efforts.  If anything, it is more so – because the real people on which this novel is based are none other than the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, one-time lover of Lord Byron. 

But I’m in danger of getting ahead of myself.  Let me begin, as they say, at the beginning.
The year is 1850.  Charles Maddox, thief-taker par excellence, has barely recovered from the harrowing climax of his investigation into the Tom-All-Alone’s mystery when he finds himself summoned to the home of Sir Percy Shelley (only surviving son of the long-dead poet) and his crass wife, Lady Jane.  It soon transpires that Charles is required to investigate a rather straightforward case of blackmail – someone has threatened to publish papers relating to Shelley which, if genuine, may cast the poet in a rather unfavourable light (and, indeed, undo the family’s decades-long work in sanitizing his once-dubious reputation).

But, as is always the case in Shepherd’s novels, nothing is what it seems.  It isn’t long before Charles finds himself ensnared in a web of lies and deceit borne out of seething jealously, sibling rivalry and unfulfilled love.  It is a web which stretches through time and space – from 1814 to 1850, from the valleys of Wales, to northern Italy and the shores of Lake Geneva.  It is a web which witnessed the creation of Frankenstein, one of the most celebrated gothic novels ever written, but which could also have given rise to more than one shocking murder.

Drawing on all we currently know about the Shelleys and their turbulent lives, A Treacherous Likeness seeks to fill in the many acknowledged gaps in the factual records.  Told through the eyes on an omniscient, 21st century narrator (who benefits from both hindsight and advancements in our understanding of psychological disorders), this exhaustively-researched and intricately-plotted novel casts this fêted literary family in an entirely different light.

While this is, undeniably, a work of fiction, it is a very compelling fiction – and one that will leave you questioning all you thought you knew about that ‘dazzling but doomed’ generation.

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd will be published by Corsair in February

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