The Woman in the Lake
by Nicola Cornick
February 26, 2019 · Graydon House
Nicola Cornick’s writing continues to suck me in and it’s very difficult for me to put her books down. The writing is atmospheric in a way that’s both vivid and eerie, as are the descriptions of place and of slightly menacing suspense, which is often formed within the history of a location repeating itself in multiple timelines.
The Woman in the Lake follows three women in two different timelines. Fenella Brightwell is in the present day (sort of – it’s 2015 for her) and is trying to recover from an abusive marriage. The parallel story from the past is set in 1765, and is told by Lady Isabella Gerard and her maid, Constance. All three are operating in limited spheres of existence and influence: Fenella is emotionally and I think mentally fragile, while Lady Isabella is abused by her husband, who also controls Constance, as she’s placed in the household by Lord Gerard to spy on his wife and report her actions.
The motif of this book is possession, both in the verb and the noun form, and by extension, control. There’s a mysterious gown that slips through time, is stunningly beautiful, and also utterly evil. It accentuates and focuses a person’s worst impulses, and possesses people if they touch it for too long. Meanwhile, people who encounter the dress in any time period become obsessed with it, wanting to possess it while it also possesses them. Both timelines also explore in a more cursory fashion the painful experience of abusive relationships, and how much physical, emotional, and financial abuse work to control victims, who are also often treated as possessions.
The larger action of the story, and the activities of the different characters all touch on control, as well: there’s smuggling, antiques dealing, moving things from one place or time period to another, or from one place to another while individuals focus on maintaining control of what is in their possession. The way these concepts are at work in each character is multifaceted and extremely fascinating to ponder. Unfortunately for me, the plot of each timeline was not as strong as the motifs within it.
Fenella is being tortured by either her own mental breakdown or by someone who is trying to mess with her head by doing things like moving objects and leaving messages for her in the steam on the medicine cabinet. It’s not too difficult to figure out who, and when a character mentions the structure of the town, it’s not hard to figure out how, either. But the suspense of Fenella’s perspective is whether she’s experiencing a terrifying, isolating reality, or if the terror is entirely in her head – or a mix of both.
Fenella’s character development didn’t sit well with me: she’s got a lot of after-effects and what seems like PTSD from her abusive ex, plus her own grief and estrangement from her family. Her troubles are real and easily exploited so that she questions her own judgment as a menacing figure causes her to doubt herself and her grip on reality again and again. But aside from a line about having had counseling in the past, she’s mostly left to handle it alone, despite well-meaning friends encouraging her to go seek medical help. There’s a thin line between “No, my husband is not charming, he’s abusing me and torturing me,” and “No, I’m not losing my grip on reality, that dress really is evil and haunted,” but beneath that, Fenella needed real medical help and intervention, and it made me frustrated and sad that there was no indication she was going to get any.
In the 1760s, Lady Gerard and Constance are the other two point-of-view characters. Lady Isabella is repeatedly abused by her husband, and Constance was sold to Lord Gerard by her father to cover a debt. (There’s a fascinating part later where Constance goes to visit her family, who are trying to elevate themselves class-wise, and Constance’s presence as a lady’s maid is both a help and a hindrance to their quest for control how they are perceived by their larger community.) Constance hates pretty much everyone around her, and hates her limited power and influence, and hates Lady Gerard for what little she does with her own paltry amount of agency. Constance, however, is very, very smart, and clever, and is the character I was cheering for the most. She’s had it with men using her and manipulating her for their own ends, and is determined to take revenge and remove herself from their power. The point at which she does is so far towards the end that I was disappointed not to see more. I wanted to see a little more of Constance kicking all the ass, and ferociously owning the life she created.
The development of the emotional connections between the characters jumps ahead in massive leaps, and the three women in the story acquire agency and determination very late in the book. There’s more time wherein things happen to them, and they’re sort of pushed along by the plot, which makes their decision to take action and not put up with any more crap seem like too much, too late in the story. Moreover, there are incidents of time slippage that happen to more than one character, but that part isn’t explored as much, and isn’t as developed as other elements of the mystery.
The dress itself is confusing, too. One character figures out the relative power of the garment very quickly, without having seen it or experienced it, in a scene that I described in my notes as, “Too easy, too fast: oh hey your dress is haunted kthxbye!”
Despite the many things I found frustrating with the plot, I couldn’t put the book down, and ended up staying awake way past my bedtime to finish it. When the characters start Doing Things, the story races forward and it’s a lot that happens in a short space. It’s difficult to grade a book when I couldn’t stop reading it, but overall, the whole of it was kind of unsatisfying. While I remain very content to ponder the themes of control, possession, and power that operate within the story for each of the three women, the execution of that plot was disappointing, and left me wanting more for everyone, especially Constance.