19th Jun 2012
The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies
A splash of cornflower blue, a gaping perambulator, some chalky text over lichen-slippy steps create an eerie and eye-catching effect on the paperback cover of The Ghost of Lily Painter.
I had no idea that its author, Caitlin Davies ,was the offspring of the literary coupling of Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies. A freelance journalist and writer for The Independent, Davies’ work draws on personal experience – be it life in Botswana (where she lived for twelve years) in Place of Reeds or, in this case, in London.
(In tandem with Lily Painter’s publication, I notice our busy author is releasing a paean to a lifetime’s dipping in the waters around Hampstead (Taking The Waters), a possible urban accompaniment to lovers of Roger Deakin’s wonderful Waterlog?)
Davies draws on the history of her own terraced house in Upper Holloway, using findings from the 1901 census to inform this dark tale. Not entirely a work of fiction then, this – and made all the richer by the fact that Davies actually once worked for a period in Holloway Prison.
This is a historical novel, one which will draw obvious comparisons with Kate Summerscale’s acclaimed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.
Annie Sweet does not know why she is drawn to 43 Stanley Road, but she is – and it’s here that she carves out an existence, emerging from a broken marriage with a yapping rescue dog and her young daughter, Molly.
The relationship between mother and daughter is, as ever, an interesting exploration in itself – although the quest to find a rightful home for Molly’s ‘talent’ borders a little on the obsessive, and for me detracted from the sinister goings-on concerning details in the notebook of one Inspector William George.
The eponymous Lily Painter makes a cracking central character, and the book transports us to the familiar terrain of squalor amidst the blinding lights of the music-hall.
This novel is a fusion of a setting much enjoyed in Tipping the Velvet, with a backbone of the supernatural at its most chillsome, again conveyed by Sarah Waters in The Little Stranger, and with a generous dose of the seediness and danger seen in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem.
As is so often the case, the London underworld makes for a great read. Annie’s Miss Marple-like zealour, and the help given by her friendly librarian, takes her and the tale beyond London’s spires.
The book is at once entertaining, enlightening and disturbing. A red herring, which for an instant led me to believe this tale was meandering down a far more evil route – though this one takes some beating – sadly did not stop me from pre-empting the ending. This isn’t to say the experience will be the same for you – and it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in criminology, genealogy, vaudeville, the history of London and Women’s Studies.