Amherst

Written by William Nicholson
Review by Caroline Wilson

Amherst, set largely in the small Massachusetts town famous for its connections to reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, tells the story of Emily’s brother Austin and his torrid decade-long affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of a college professor. Alternately set during the 1880s and in modern times, the story is brought to life by Alice Dickinson (no relation) who is writing a screenplay about the scandal. She travels to Amherst and meets lothario professor Nick Crocker, decades older in age and sexual experience. Their relationship mirrors the one so long ago transacted, and Alice struggles not only with her own opinions of love and desire but also the complex emotions exhibited by both Austin and Mabel.

William Nicholson’s prose is sharp while not giving too much away. The reader is left guessing as Alice pursues her protagonists. There are also appearances from Emily Dickinson – written in an ethereal, almost distracted first-person view – as she observes the deepening affair between her brother and the woman who would go on to edit her immense cache of poems. The novel is a perfect accompaniment for a long winter’s evening, though maybe not as powerful as the similar A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Nonetheless, readers who enjoy their historical fiction mixed modern mystery will enjoy Amherst.