It’s London, 1850, and Robert Highstead is still in mourning for his wife, working as a post-mortem photographer. From the very beginning, I was grabbed by how odd the situation was. Then Hugh de Bonne, a famous poet, dies, and Robert is called to photograph him. Robert is the deceased’s distant cousin and is given the task of transporting Hugh’s remains to a stained glass chapel built by the deceased sixteen years earlier on the family estate in Shropshire. The chapel was built to house the remains of Hugh’s wife, Ada. Since her death it has been locked and abandoned, visited only by fans of Hugh’s last book, The Lost History of Dreams.
Of course, Robert runs into difficulty when Hugh’s niece, Isabelle, won’t unlock the chapel until Robert records the details of Hugh and Ada’s ill-fated marriage. What follows is a Victorian gothic tale complete with a crumbling old house, family secrets, ghosts, and a love story. In fact, the author says, “All love stories are ghost stories in disguise” over and over. Waldherr’s novel teases us by going from past to present, fact to fiction, truth to falsehood, until the notion of what is real is completely muddied.
This novel takes a while to build its tension, but the image of the stained glass chapel captured me. I wanted to read on, to discover everything about it, especially when Isabelle begins to tell Ada’s story. The writing is full of lush descriptions and hauntingly magical scenes. The plot twists between the tragedy of Robert’s own marriage, the mystery of Isabelle’s identity, the love immortalized in Hugh’s poems, and the meddling of the Seekers of the Lost Dream. It provides an intriguing story, but it does slow the movement of the story, which is a reimagining of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice from classical mythology. Overall, I enjoyed this book but it may be too slow for some.
Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).