I’m very glad I follow Australian reader Sophie Carlon. Without her recommendation, I would have missed the delightfully chilling The Book Collector, by Alice Thompson. And this would have been a great shame because Thompson’s brief novel captures some of the feel of Angela Carter, who I adore for the ways that she plays with the conventions of fairy tales. The Book Collector is another dark fairy tale come to life in which an innocent woman discovers that her husband is a monster.
To everyone else, Violet has all that a woman could want. She has a rich, handsome husband. She has an adorable child. And yet, something’s not right. At first, it’s little things. Her husband won’t talk about his first wife. Then he won’t let Violet read the book of fairy tales he had made for that first wife. Then he won’t let her read any of his books. Then the gaslighting starts. Before she knows quite what’s going on, Violet ends up in an asylum for women who are more troublesome than insane. And then, the murders start.
The Book Collector touches on a number of fairy tales. The women who are murdered reference “The Little Mermaid,” “The Red Shoes,” and other classic stories. Violet’s husband has more than a little of Blue Beard in the way he keeps his secrets and his willingness to threaten Violet when she pries too deeply. But, like Angela Carter’s female protagonists, Violet—once she figures out what’s really going on—does not resign herself to the part her husband has laid out for her.
There is another element of The Book Collector that fascinated me. Before I twigged to the fairy tale aspect, I was very interested to watch Violet navigate what might be post-partum depression. (I say might be because a) she’s being manipulated so much that it’s hard to tell if she is having as many delusions as her husband tells her she is having and b) Victorians did not have that diagnosis in their repertoire.) Violet loves her son and worries about him so much that she doesn’t want a nanny to raise him. This worry starts to eat Violet alive as she sees threats to her son everywhere. A little help might have helped her regain perspective, but her husband hustles her off to an asylum after Violet accidentally hurts her son when she hallucinates that the boy is covered in insects. The stay in the asylum taints Violet. Anything she sees or thinks that is out of the ordinary could be a sign that her “madness” has returned.
The Book Collector is a wonderful dark gem of a story. I enjoyed it immensely.