Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (1 February) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1831 and children and young adults are disappearing from London’s darkest streets. The poor are not easy to miss when so many are homeless and cholera plagues the city’s streets and houses. But enough have been missed to make the broadsheets and it concerns young Hester White. Hester was born to a comfortable life but tragedy means that now she lives among London’s poorest, relying on the charity of her family’s former servants. She dreams of escaping her nightmare, to be somewhere warm and clean, but also to help those that society has forsaken. It seems that she has a chance of all this when, in what might appear at first to be an unfortunate circumstance, Hester is run down by a carriage. Injured, she is taken away by the carriage owner to recover in his grand country house of Waterford Hall and there she becomes companion and servant to her rescuer’s sister Rebekah Brocks.
Rebekah and Hester are immediately drawn together for so many reasons but also for their social conscience. They find themselves investigating the missing people, taking their search into the hell streets of darkest London. The threads they follow become twisted and corrupt as lies follow their every step. The cost of trust can be deadly.
The Wicked Cometh is a rich and velvety exploration of late Georgian London at its worst. The contrast with Waterford Hall throws even more shadow on London’s slums. The stench, dirt and disease of these streets and dwellings (it wouldn’t be right to call some of these places houses or homes) is vividly described as Hester moves through this abhorrent world. For many, gin is the only escape until the final release of death through poverty, disease or murderous intent.
The scenes at Waterford Hall are entirely different. There we find ourselves in a Gothic mansion, with fire-lit rooms and evenings spent by the piano. But the mood there is never less than sinister and Rebekah is increasingly enigmatic. Hester is every bit as out of her depth at Waterford Hall as she is in London.
The novel really tells two tales. There is the mystery of the missing youngsters and then there is the relationship between Hester and Rebekah. The latter is lovingly told, all experienced through Hester’s eyes. There is some beautiful prose here as Hester tries to understand her feelings while she fears for her place in the house and, more generally, in the world. Hester is a young woman in limbo trying to find her role, while Rebekah must remain a mystery. We’re given extracts from Rebekah’s diary and that seems to confuse Hester even further. I was really drawn to Hester, even though there were times when I wanted to give her a good shake.
The Wicked Cometh is a melodramatic and Gothic tale and especially so as the novel continues. I must admit to preferring the first half of the book. I loved the realism of the chapters in London, Hester’s isolation there, the people that she comes across, all trying to make any ends meet. London is so well described. The second half of the novel felt rather fanciful to me and parts of the plot were too contrived for me to accept. There are coincidences and there are also surprises which I felt lessened the impact of other parts of the novel. I also had some issues with the ending. I suspect that the ending may divide readers.
All in all I found The Wicked Cometh to be an entertaining read that I would recommend. There are sections of it that really stand out and those chapters are indeed as purple velvety and luscious as the beautiful proof (surely the most beautiful I’ve seen) that I was fortunate to be sent to read. I suspect that in future novels the author will keep her plot better on track, avoiding the melodrama, but my overriding feeling for the novel is warmth for its wonderful and sympathetic characterisation and for its damning and insightful portrait of late Georgian London at its most dark.