The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne

Having previously read Pamela Hartshorne’s time-slip novel The Edge of Dark, I found her latest book, The Cursed Wife, both similar and different. Similar in that they both explore the lives of women in Elizabethan England; different because this one is set entirely in the past, with no modern day storyline and no form of time travel.

The Cursed Wife is written from the perspectives of two women, Mary and Cat, who are both friends and rivals. When we first meet Mary in 1590 she appears to be leading a happy and contented life; she is married to the merchant Gabriel Thorne, and lives with him, their children and their servants in a comfortable house in London. Mary is devoted to her family and her household and has almost – but not quite – managed to forget that she was cursed as a child and predicted to die by hanging.

However, Mary’s whole life is built around lies and deception and she knows that if the truth is ever revealed she could lose everything. One rainy day she sets out to do some shopping in Sopers Lane to replenish her stocks of herbs and medicines, and is shocked to see a face from her past – a face she had expected never to see again. It’s Cat, her childhood friend, who was once as close to her as a sister, but who now possesses the secrets that could ruin Mary’s life…

As I’ve said, I found this a very different sort of book from The Edge of Dark; it doesn’t have such an eerie atmosphere and lacks the touches of the supernatural – although Mary does have a very creepy one-armed wooden doll called Peg. Instead the focus is on the relationship between Mary and Cat. It’s a relationship which changes and transforms itself over the years as the roles of the two women in each other’s lives are reversed, but the links between them are seemingly unbreakable and their stories are very closely entwined.

Cat and Mary take turns to narrate in alternating chapters and although their narrative voices are very similar, the author does use a few techniques to distinguish between the two – for example, Cat’s thoughts are often aimed directly at Mary (‘you say this’ and ‘you do that’). Cat is also a more bitter person than Mary, who can often seem quite naive and slow to understand things that are obvious to the reader. Neither woman is very likeable and although Cat is nastier, I can’t really say that my sympathies were with Mary either.

Pamela Hartshorne has written about the Elizabethan period before, not just in The Edge of Dark, but in other novels too, and she obviously knows it well. We are given lots of little details on domestic life in the late 16th century – the food people ate, the clothes they wore, the tasks carried out by servants in the home – and although historical events happening in the wider world have little direct effect on the story, there’s a sense of how precarious life could be in this period when hanging is a punishment for crime and when the most minor of illnesses can result in death. The novel also looks at the roles of women and the expectations that were placed on them regarding marriage.

The Cursed Wife is an interesting read and the storyline was compelling enough to hold my attention until the end, but I did prefer The Edge of Dark and as her earlier books all seem to be time-slip novels like that one I think I’ll have to investigate them at some point.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne

The Edge of Dark I enjoy reading time-slip novels; I love the sense of the supernatural, the atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and the intertwining of two lives – one past and one present. Pamela Hartshorne has written three novels of this type (the other two are Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight) but this one is the first I’ve had the opportunity to read. I found it an entertaining, compelling and genuinely eerie read and I’m now looking forward to going back and reading her earlier novels.

The Edge of Dark is the story of Roz Acclam who, at the beginning of the novel, is preparing to start a new job as Events Director at Holmwood House, a recently restored Elizabethan building in York. This is not the first time Roz has been to York; she lived there as a small child until most of her family died in a fire and she was adopted by an aunt in London. She remembers nothing of the fire or her tragic childhood, but almost as soon as she arrives in York, memories begin to come flooding back – the only problem is, they are not her own memories but those of another woman who lived more than four hundred years earlier.

The Edge of Dark is also the story of Jane, the eldest daughter of a butcher who lived in York in the 1500s. Jane’s father is planning ambitious marriages for both of his girls and Jane soon finds herself married off to the handsome, wealthy Robert Holmwood. Joining her new husband at Holmwood House, she discovers that married life is not quite what she’d expected and she begins to long for a child of her own. But Jane’s desire to be a mother eventually grows so strong that she makes a promise she could live to regret.

As Roz tries to settle into her new job the flashbacks into Jane’s life become more frequent and she begins to question why she is having these experiences. Is Holmwood House haunted? Are Jane’s ordeals in the past somehow connected with Roz’s own problems in the present? And what really happened the night the Acclams’ house was set on fire?

Usually when I read a novel set in two time periods I find that I prefer one over the other – as I love historical fiction it tends to be the one set in the past. With this book, Roz’s story and Jane’s are so closely linked that it’s difficult to separate them; the transitions between past and present felt smooth and natural and I could easily become immersed in the lives of both women. Roz and Jane are both strong characters, but there are other interesting characters in each time period too. While some feel less developed than others, the two I found most memorable are (in the present) Helen, a jealous colleague who tries to cause trouble for Roz at work, and (in the past) Margaret Holmwood, Jane’s scheming mother-in-law.

I also liked the fact that the novel is set in York, a city I have visited many times and am quite familiar with. It was obvious that the book was written by an author who knows York, its streets and its buildings very well! Something else I found interesting was seeing what goes into opening a new tourist attraction to the public. I would have liked to have read more about Roz’s work – it sounded fascinating.

I realise I’ve come to the end of this review and haven’t mentioned the significance of the beautiful Tudor necklace on the front cover of the book, but I need to leave something for future readers to discover for themselves!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.