Kate Mosse’s books seem to be everywhere and I’ve tended to avoid them because historical fiction isn’t really my thing. But I enjoyed a TV adaptation of Labyrinth a few years ago and the reviews of THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER seemed encouraging, so I decided to overcome my prejudices and give this a go.
The daughter in question is Constantia Gifford, or Connie, who, we gradually learn, suffered some kind of trauma as a child that left her with memory loss and a tendency to slip out of time, whilst experiencing vivid flashes of the past. We pick up her story as these episodes are becoming more pronounced, prompted by present day events and encounters that are stirring up buried memories.
The novel opens with a midnight gathering in the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Mary in the Sussex village of Fishbourne (“where the saltwater estuary leads out to the sea”). It’s the Eve of St Mark, when it’s believed that “the ghosts of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen walking into the church at the turning of the hour”. Connie’s father is one of those partaking in the superstitious ritual and she has surreptitiously followed him to the churchyard where she sees others who, like herself, are watching the gathered villagers from the shadows, and hears one of them ask “Is she here?” As the bells toll midnight, the church doors are flung open, a flock of small birds break free and, in the ensuing chaos, a woman is throttled to death with taxidermist’s wire.
Dark and disturbing, this sets the scene for the rest of the book, which is a mix of folklore, ghost story and grisly murder fiction. Birds feature heavily, with jackdaws, crows, magpies and rooks aplenty – beware if you suffer from ornithophobia – both as sinister harbingers of death and also as deliverers of justice. THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER is Victorian Gothic to the letter, a melodramatic tale of mysterious secrets and bloodthirsty revenge, made all the more compelling for being very determinedly rooted in authenticity.
Mosse grew up on the Sussex mudflats s and the landscape is vividly and accurately rendered in all its beautiful and menacing desolation. Her descriptions of the natural world capture so much detail and are exquisitely lyrical. The flooded Fishbourne marshes provide a wild and vast backdrop for the novel’s moral climax and thrum with a pathetic fallacy that works so well because Mosse knows and understands the landscape intimately – this is no convenient literary device, it’s humanity as an integral part of nature (something I feel all the more strongly for writing this in the wake of the Paris climate talks and as parts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire are under water in some of the worst floods Britain has ever seen). Mosse is equally authoritative when it comes to the intricacies of the art of taxidermy, with quotes from Mrs R Lee’s 1820 seminal text on “The Art of Collecting, Preparing and Mounting objects of natural history”, and exacting accounts of disemboweling, skinning and stuffing. Even the symbolism with which the book is replete, from the decaying bird corpse that Connie patiently tends to the crumbling isolation of her father’s house on the edge of the village, has been painstakingly researched.
The story itself is rather flimsy by comparison – coincidences abound and the amnesia, blackmail, sectioning to a mental asylum and collective sexual perversions of Sussex’s elite feel barely credible when set aside the other elements of the book. But it’s credit to Mosse’s considerable talents that somehow none of that matters. As one of the reviews influencing my decision to read THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER, puts it: “Frankly, it’s a cock and bull story, but so pleasurable is Mosse’s storytelling brio that the reader is willingly borne along.”