The Death of Jane Lawrence, by Caitlin Starling, has just joined the club of books that made me think, “what the hell did I just read?” This fantastical, horrifying novel takes place in a world that feels Victorian, but where magic is a mythical and very dangerous thing. The rules of this world’s magic involve rituals, strange ingredients, and a lot of dedication. After nearly 400 pages, that’s all I know. This might frustrate some readers. It certainly frustrated me a bit. The eponymous character Jane was so interesting and so fierce that I was able to make it through whole chapters where I wasn’t sure I knew what was going on, but she doesn’t quite make up for the muddled narrative. To be honest, my favorite parts of this book were the chapters before Jane takes up magic.
Jane is an odd duck. She prefers accounting and mathematics to anything else, and we are told that her cool logic puts people off. When her guardians decide to move to the capital, where her annuity won’t go far enough, Jane surveys the local bachelors to try and find herself a husband. She decides on the new(ish) doctor, Augustine Lawrence. After a little argumentation—and some sparks that romance readers will recognize—Jane and Augustine come to an agreement. They will marry. Jane will live in the surgery in town. Augustine will spend his nights at his ancestral pile, where Jane is forbidden to stay. Of course, that agreement immediately breaks down due to a washed-out road that prevents Jane from traveling back to town after a semi-celebratory dinner.
And then things get weird. Really weird. There are ghosts. The house is haunted by strange creatures. Things move around with no explanation. Worse of all for Jane, she learns that Augustine is emotionally haunted by a dead woman who later turns out to be his dead first wife. By this point, I was getting serious Jane Eyre vibes; vibes that might have made me feel more disappointed by this book than I might have otherwise. (For a much better, and much more interesting, retelling of Jane Eyre, try Jane Steele, by Lindsay Faye.) Just when I thought things couldn’t get any weirder for Jane and the doctor, Jane starts manifesting magic against whatever is trying to either drive them mad or kill them both.
The Death of Jane Lawrence touches on some interesting themes about arrogance, the limits of human ingenuity to prevent death, and messing with things that should not be messed with. But the end of this book is such a muddle that I really have no idea what Jane was doing or why in her efforts to try and rescue her husband. Worse, I thought that all of the solid character development for Jane went right out the window after she gets married. We are told more than once that Jane is logical, a problem-solver. But the hauntings and her growing affection for Augustine turn her into almost a completely different person. I hate to use the word, but Jane is hysterical more often than not. It’s only later, after Augustine gaslights her or another character tries to explain away whatever supernatural shenanigans just happened, that she manages to calm down and use her brain. This is what I found out of character and it really bothered me. I expected a so-called coldly logical woman to be able to walk into a haunted mansion without going to pieces. I really wish this book had lived up to the promise of its first chapters.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.