The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse is a difficult novel to classify. It’s set in Sussex in 1912, but I wouldn’t call it historical fiction; it’s more atmospheric than tediously accurate in its depiction of the time and place. It opens with a murder, a body, and a group of suspects, but it’s no detective story; throughout the novel, the reader knows far more than the late-on-the-scene policeman. If pressed, I’d call the book a Gothic-tinged, avian-hued horror story. It’s a story of revenge — or justice, depending on your perspective.
The titular character is Connie Gifford, whose memories before the age of twelve are lost. Amnesia can be a clichéd plot device, but Mosse makes it work well enough. In a Prologue, Connie visits the Church of St. Peter and St. Mary where, on the Eve of St. Mark, it’s thought the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year will be seen. Instead, a cloud of birds rush out of the church, striking hats and gravestones, killing themselves in the process. And then, through vague imagery, we see a woman garrotted. It’s an upfront warning to readers. The book is a bit more grisly than Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
The two things most readers will remember about the book are its setting and its focus on taxidermy, specifically with respect to birds (birds are a major motif). Mosse’s descriptions of Fishbourne’s marshes and mill pond, as well as the fictional Blackthorn House, Apuldram Woods, and the aptly named Themis Cottage, are vividly rendered. Instead of a windswept moor and a stormy winter, readers get a windswept coast and a stormy spring. Desolate, doomed places like Wuthering Heights, Manderly, and the House of Usher are evoked.
Most of the chapters end with an excerpt from the book Taxidermy: Or, the Art of Collecting, Preparing, and Mounting Objects of Natural History by R. Lee, which was published in 1820. These peeks into the ghoulish practice gave the story an authentic, if creepy feel, especially because they were immediately followed by the murderer’s journal entries. I’ll admit that I usually prefer my macabre to be more Grim Reaper than Jack the Ripper, but the gruesome aspects of the novel never quite reached a point where it was a major turn off for me. (In fact, my imagined ending was even grimmer than the one Mosse chose).
Two other quick thoughts:
There were a lot of characters whose names began with the letter C. Crowley and Crowther, I understood. Connie and Cassie, I did not.
Mosse used weather to heighten the tension in a way that was believable and effective. It’s a technique I’ve used and I’m always worried it won’t work — that adding a storm to a big set piece showdown will seem tacked on. But, writers, it’s a technique worth studying. I hope it’s not too big of a spoiler to share that Mosse ends the book with a big spring flood. You all know my thoughts on nature and how it can be both destructive and regenerative. I’m not sure she meant it as a metaphor, but it seemed to me that her cold, wet, inexorable tide seeped into the town like an insidious evil and then swept out, taking itself and everything it touched with it.
Have you read The Taxidermist’s Daughter? What did you think?