STARRED REVIEW
March 2020

The Golden Key

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In Marian Womack’s shadowy novel, ingenious women confront turn-of-the-century uncertainties.

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In Marian Womack’s shadowy novel, ingenious women confront turn-of-the-century uncertainties.

In the 1880s, three children disappeared from their estate in the Norfolk Fens. Since then, other children have also disappeared, with some connection to a green light, white fungus, fog, a marsh and the appearance of a man named Samuel Moncrieff. Twenty years later, in the wake of Queen Victoria’s death, detective Helena Walton-Cisneros and her new friend, Eliza Waltraud, search for answers to this mystery.

Strong characters with murky pasts lend urgency to the quest for answers. The book begins in mourning, as Samuel has lost his lover, while England has lost its queen. Despite Samuel’s bleak, directionless mood, the new century promises to be one of light and of new opportunities. Samuel’s storyline is shrouded in mystery, but Helena’s drive for clarity about what happened in the Fens brings a crucial sense of order to the novel. She enlists help from Eliza, who plans to right the wrongs done to an academic writer, Eunice Foote, whose work was credited to her male colleagues. Together, these women’s minds and hearts open to possibilities they never expected. 

Women are the story’s primary actors, finding clever ways—including the occult—to skirt discrimination and advance their cause during a turbulent time. The action swirls in a maelstrom of spiritualism, revived after Victoria’s passing, and the subsequent rational backlash. 

Steeped in a slew of influences, The Golden Key bends genres. It’s part Shirley Jackson’s stories of inner demons, part Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (referenced throughout the book), part Astrid Lindgren’s faith in children’s resilience and part ghost story. A lush, unsettled atmosphere echoes in lugubrious descriptions of the Fens.

Enter a mysterious world in the hands of capable women. Getting drawn into this story is easy; getting out again is trickier.

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