Rose Black’s debut novel The Unforgetting starts with Lily Bell waking in an unfamiliar room, hearing the sea outside and smelling burnt toast; her dreams of becoming an actress on the Victorian stage are about to come true – or are they?
She’s just been sold by her stepfather to Professor Erasmus Salt to take the part of his “ghost” in an elaborate Pepper’s Ghost stage illusion. But Lily is forced into mourning clothes, and then the Professor starts placing death notices for his – still very much alive – actress. She’s trapped in this role, and he has even darker designs on her. The Unforgetting is a deliciously gothic tale which takes in the Victorian stage, seaside towns and travelling fairs, and addresses the very real horrors faced by women – particularly poor women – in a patriarchal society.
The gothic mode is often characterised by high emotion; romance; sublime settings; ghosts and death. All of these are found here, and the novel packs a lot of real unease into a tale which never contains any supernatural menace. Lily is trapped, and trapped completely, by the Professor; never is this more apparent than in the stifling under-stage chamber in which the ghost illusion is created. It’s hot and claustrophobic and surreal, this atmosphere mirrored in the creeping dread with which the novel surrounds the Professor. Early on, he’s shown to be obsessed with his dead mother – Lily, her surrogate in distinctive pale colouring, is acting out a doomed love story written and directed by him – and visiting “little blonde tarts… pliable and silent. White-skinned. White-haired.”
This is a Victorian England of horrors, including baby farms, opium, child beggars, and pregnant governesses locked in attics. Lily’s naivete at the start of the novel is almost painful, a pivotal sexual assault deeply uncomfortable; it has shades of the acting industry’s awful #MeToo revelations in its depiction of the power dynamic and trust being abused. I appreciated the fact that the assault was seen in retrospect, recollected by Lily in fragments: this both felt authentic and avoided any impression of prurient interest. Her subsequent fugue state (“I’m not meant to be here… remember me as a ghost”) was beautifully and heartbreakingly evoked, against Black’s richly-rendered Ramsgate backdrop: “in the distance, the sea roared and murmured in its ceaseless monologue.”
This possession – of women by men, and societal expectations – was at the heart of the novel’s discomfort. Lily is literally sold by one man to another, her wages going directly to her stepfather, and the Professor chillingly hands out ‘pin money’ when she brings it up. Her mother was unable to protect her – but also secretly thinks the acting dream will peter out, and Lily will return home and “a suitable husband… found, grandchildren born”. Faye Salt, the Professor’s sister, is similarly trapped in “the role of the spinster… assisting her brother in his endeavours while her own life dwindled away”. And in the aftermath of the sexual assault, Lily’s own body feels like another prison. Her feelings are powerfully evoked, and I found myself with a very real sense of the walls closing in. Glimpses of freedom are only found in the liminal women’s space of a cottage by the sea – in which Lily and Faye are confined to look after a baby – and the extra-societal space of a travelling fair, in which Lily dresses in men’s clothing: “Lily still hadn’t grown accustomed to the freedom she had as a boy, to the novelty of walking alone without shame, her head up, free to go where she pleased.”
The Unforgetting is a pacey novel: chapters were often short, and I found myself reading quickly, as frequent point-of-view changes made the next page a tantalising one. One unravelling mystery was just how complicit Faye was in the Professor’s horrors, and glimmers of her growing conscience or consciousness were threaded throughout the book. I particularly liked the motif of her constantly crocheting – keeping her hands busy and her mind off things, like a Revolution-era tricoteuse – only to surrender the resulting blanket in a pivotal scene which showed how her priorities had shifted. The “unforgetting” of the title refers to this slow development of Faye’s memory and understanding, a moment of high gothic drama “breaching the dam that had allowed [me] to live”. It was well-done, and allowed the book to build in a sort of slow motion chase sequence – through gorgeously realised locations – towards its eventual denouement.
Black’s writing absolutely shines when she depicts the setting: every place in the book is brought to life. In a typically unshowy passage, Lily walks “past a long low building that by the strong smell of kipper announced itself as a fish smokery, past the dim outline of a bazaar lit by a line of flaying gas lamps, the indistinct brickwork of an assembly rooms. Strains of piano music floated out.” Fans of period drama will relish the attention given to the greasepaint, cosmetics, perfumes and costume of the stage, but I found the locations themselves to be the stars: Ramsgate in a heatwave, with bathing machines and donkey-rides, artists selling shell camellias, hawkers of roses and cherries, and “Ethiopian minstrels making their strangely affecting music”. It put me in mind of the extremely vivid market scenes, crammed with sights and smells, in Premee Mohamed’s debut Beneath the Rising – a very different book, but one which also made a real impression in its use of immersive setting. But Black also puts this precise attention to detail to good use elsewhere; we can tell a great deal about Lily’s state of mind from her putting her stockings on inside-out as she leaves her stepfather’s house to join the Professor, or from how she grows accustomed in the fair to “stepping down barefoot into dewy grass early in the morning, bathing in warmed up rainwater perfumed by woodsmoke.”
Perhaps inevitably in a book which uses multiple points of view, I found some less convincing – and narratively satisfying – than others. I was unpersuaded that we needed to hear from the Professor at all, as due to the flatness of his narrative voice, any drama imparted through that point of view often tended to fall similarly flat. It revealed motivations which could have been kept deliciously off-screen, or stored up to be revealed through the clever narrative device of Faye’s backstory and “unforgetting”. I also found it jarring to encounter the self-justifying and minimising point of view of Lily’s rapist in a novel which is otherwise so strongly concerned with giving these women the voice to tell the stories of their oppression. Others, of course, may well disagree – and there might be something to be said for the chilling horror of seeing how little Lily’s trauma, hopes and dreams, and physical safety mean to this man.
The Unforgetting is a page-turner which blends high Victorian gothic – Pepper’s ghost, lost babies and the looming threat of penury – with a carefully constructed claustrophobic squeeze on its female characters. Black is at ease depicting her characters’ emotional states (or lack thereof) but also paints a very lush portrait of their world, never delivered at the expense of the story.
The Unforgetting by Rose Black is published by Orion.