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Book Review: The Fascination by Essie Fox

Book Review: The Fascination by Essie Fox

After his mother dies in childbirth, orphan Theo is raised by his grandfather, Lord Seabrook, a severe and resentful so-called gentleman with a dark interest in anatomical freaks and other curiosities. Theo is afforded the privileges of his family’s wealth but when Seabrook remarries and a new heir is produced, Theo is forced to abruptly leave the only home he’s ever known without a penny to his name. Living and working at the macabre Dr Summerwell’s Museum of Anatomy in London, Theo meets a mysterious Italian known as ‘Captain’ and his theatrical family of outcast performers. But it’s not the first time he’s encountered certain members of Captain’s troupe.

Years ago, at a travelling country fairground, Theo met the Lovell sisters, Keziah and Tilly. As twins, they are identical in every way, except that Tilly hasn’t grown a single inch since she was five. Sold to Captain at the age of fifteen, the sisters have found a home with his unorthodox family. Yet whilst natural performer Tilly feels an affinity with her adopted outcast family, Keziah struggles to find her place amidst this world of strange and wonderful people. As something of an outsider himself, Theo hasn’t forgotten his first encounter with the twins. His fascination with them will lead them all into a dark web of secrets, deception and manipulation that threatens everything they know.

He feels the queerest of sensations, as sweet as honey in his belly when he notices the place where the shoulder blades should be, and where… Is that a pair of wings? But, if they’re wings, is this a fairy? A real-life fairy in a bottle? The fascination has begun.”

The Fascination is an apt title for Essie Fox’s latest historical novel, which transports readers to the glitz and grime of 19th century London. From the book’s perspective, it’s a story of the fascinations people have with each other – from Theo’s innocent enthrallment with the Lovell sisters to the sordid, uncomfortable fixations of Seabrook and his repugnant ilk. For readers, too, it’s a tale of historic fascinations, inviting us into an evocative gothic world that’s rich with Victorian detail and exquisitely written characters. It’s a novel that builds and burns slowly, creating an atmosphere that’s full of warmth and acceptance in one way, and ignorance and cruelty in another.

Split into three parts, the first part of the novel establishes the early lives of Theo, Keziah and Tilly, revealing the traumas that made and shaped them. Yet the story really comes into it’s own in Part Two, when the characters are thrust into the world as young, ill-equipped adults. They all know how unforgiving and unkind people can be, but that doesn’t stop them from falling into the traps laid by those who wish to exploit their collectively gentle and unworldly natures. It’s a relief to readers, as well as characters, that they have Captain to look over them. He’s an enigmatic presence – a man haunted by loss and grief, but whose endless charm, kindness and compassion provides a safe haven for a cast of characters who’ve been ostracised and neglected.

There’s a vein of darkness travelling through the whole novel but it’s a testament to Fox’s writing that it never overshadows the true heart of the story, which is the theme of love and redemption. The theatrical family that Theo, Keziah and Tilly become entwined with evokes the same found family spirit seen in The Greatest Showman. From thoughtful and valiant Aleksi to kind and motherly Martha, the characters become as important to the reader as they are to the Lovell sisters. You genuinely want them to overcome their adversities and find happiness, whatever that might mean to them. And as the novel races towards its tense end – an end that feels inevitable from the beginning yet still never ceases to surprise – you’d have to be made of stone not to feel the palpable emotion threaded through every page.

This is Essie Fox’s best novel to date – one that weaves terrors with triumphs, heartache with hope. It’s a story of fairgrounds and theatre, of obsession and prejudice, but what lingers in the mind long after the book ends are the wonderfully multifaceted characters that make the story so beguiling. And as for the very final twist, on the very final page – bravo Essie Fox – I didn’t see it coming at all. Though looking back now, there couldn’t be a more fitting denouement.


The Fascination is published by Orenda Books on 22 June 2023

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