The Corset (UK) / The Poison Thread (US)

Written by Laura Purcell
Review by Linda Sever

This Victorian gothic tale, about two very different women whose lives intertwine, narrates the story of seamstress, Ruth, imprisoned for horrific murders, and respectable Dorothea, a prison visitor and phrenologist who, the more she listens to Ruth’s story, starts to question aspects of her own life. Since childhood Ruth has been bullied. Her once wealthy mother has to deal with a different life after marrying a penniless painter. Still she sends Ruth to a good school, where she is bullied relentlessly, attacked, kicked and beaten, one time breaking her corset.

The only gift Ruth has is the ability to do incredibly detailed, delicate needlework. To her this is a special power that she can use to exact revenge on those who have wronged her, stitching something into clothing that transfers to those who wear it. Meanwhile, Dorothea dreams of marrying her handsome policeman, against her father’s wishes. She sees herself as an academic and scientist, and Ruth is one of her case studies. Slowly, the tables turn.

The book drips with scenes of gothic horror and quiet menace. There are moments that are truly creepy and intense, heightened by the ambiguity of the two sides to the story. The chapters alternate between Dorothea’s scientific, rational approach and Ruth’s suggestion of something more supernatural. The language used is beautiful throughout. The different voices of the two women draw you deeply into both their worlds and the shifts in the prose depict the changes in their thoughts and behaviour patterns, as their stories shift and change.

The Corset combines class envy with sexual repression and social history. Purcell writes beautifully, drawing the reader into the dark, gothic landscape of Victorian England. A highly recommended read.