Rustication (n): the state of having been sent down (i.e., suspended) from university; alternately, a sojourn in the country. Both are the fate of 17-year-old Richard Shenstone, kicked out of Cambridge and left with no option but to lodge with his recently-widowed mother and changeable sister in their new home – a crumbling mansion on the English coast. The cause of Shenstone’s rustication, his family’s increasingly suspicious behaviour, and their precipitate descent into penury is gradually revealed as even more unsettling events begin to take place: animals are horribly mutilated and poisoned pen letters circulate the neighbourhood, promising a similar fate for the town’s two-legged inhabitants.
This is a literary thriller of the first order, with Gothic atmosphere, accomplished prose, and smooth presentation easily trumping plot. Palliser’s picture of English country society reads like a pitch-black, Victorian version of Austen: social standing is all, the importance of acceptance (even by those one finds loathsome) is clearly illustrated, gossip and misinformation reign, and lives turn on events as simple as a snub in church. The first-person narration of Shenstone’s journal sets the perfect tone; interspersed are the poisoned pen letters, which are suitably explicit and disturbing (if you tire of the F bomb, beware). Shenstone exhibits the foibles of youth: he’s hormonally obsessed with sex, perennially misjudges peoples’ characters, thinks himself more worldly than he is, and prevaricates when it suits him. For all this, he experiences moments of introspection and revises opinions to admit when he’s wrong, making him more sympathetic than this portrait would imply. The creepy setting is adeptly crafted, and suspense builds steadily. The reader, with a more objective, mature perspective than Shenstone, will quickly pinpoint malefactors and watch with anxiety to see if Shenstone can puzzle things out in time. Recommended for fans of the Victorian Gothic.