STARRED REVIEW
November 14, 2017

An alluring tale of London past and present

By Michèle Roberts
Review by

Victorian and modern-day England overlap in Michèle Robert’s The Walworth Beauty, a richly told ghost story set deep in one of London’s most historic neighborhoods and populated by an ex-policeman, a redundant academic and a mysterious landlady whose reach extends beyond the centuries.

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Victorian and modern-day England overlap in Michèle Robert’s The Walworth Beauty, a richly told ghost story set deep in one of London’s most historic neighborhoods and populated by an ex-policeman, a redundant academic and a mysterious landlady whose reach extends beyond the centuries.

In 1851, Joseph Benson has been employed by Henry Mayhew, the real-life documentarian of Victorian working-class life, to research the lives of prostitutes. A former policeman, Benson is familiar with life on the streets and the choices made by the working poor. But he struggles to remain impartial; it’s all too easy to give in to the women’s charms and tricks, especially when compared to his dreary home life. Professional inquiries bring him to Apricot Place and the elegant Mrs. Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house. Benson assumes it is a brothel, but quickly discovers that Mrs. Dulcimer’s life is not so easily classified.

More than a century later, Madeleine moves to Apricot Place after she is laid off from her position as an English professor. Engrossed by the old neighborhood, she wanders the streets, a modern-day flâneuse befriending the neighbors and immersing herself in the sights, sounds and smells. But the deeper she delves into her new environs, the more she senses echoes of a ghostly sort. A disturbing encounter with a widowed minister in a bar leaves her shaken. Is he stalking her, or is it something supernatural?

A novel of dual narratives always risks one being more interesting than the other, but Roberts keeps her interlocked stories in balance, perhaps because her use of sensuous detail serve both so well. Roberts, is a prolific novelist whose previous books have been nominated for the Booker Prize, is better known in the U.K. than the U.S., but The Walworth Beauty might just change that.

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The Walworth Beauty

The Walworth Beauty

By Michèle Roberts
Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408883396

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