The Walworth Beauty

Written by Michèle Roberts
Review by Kate Braithwaite

This is a beautifully written dual-timeline novel with ghostly overtones. The two stories are linked primarily by location. In 2011 London, Madeleine, a retired English lecturer in her sixties, moves into a basement flat in Apricot Place, a quiet street south of the river Thames. In 1851, however, the house in Apricot Place was the home of Mrs Dulcimer, an enigmatic black woman who may or may not have been a brothel-keeper. In the historical sections of the novel, Joseph Benson encounters Mrs Dulcimer through his work as a recorder of social conditions in London and in particular on the thriving trade in prostitution. Almost against his will he is drawn back to Apricot Place time and time again.

Beyond location, the two narratives are linked by themes about women needs, both sexual and social, as well as a series of ghostly connections where shades of the past in Apricot Place appear to bleed through into the modern day. Roberts presents two Londons both vividly described and appealing to all the senses. She has adopted a close third person style, eschewing formal punctuation of direct speech and preferring a stream of consciousness form of story-telling that breaks grammar rules in order to bring the reader as close as possible into Joseph and Madeleine’s feelings and observations about the world each of them inhabits.

Perhaps more of triumph of style (language and description) than substance (plot and character), The Walworth Beauty is a poetic and richly imagined novel full of sensuality and gothic overtones.