After all these years of reading, I like to think that I have a pretty good instinct when deciding “I’m going to like this book” or “this one really isn’t for me”, and use it to choose my reading. Sadly, I still frequently get it wrong. Essie Fox has written three previous Gothic Victorian novels published by Orion Books – The Somnambulist, Elijah’s Mermaid, and The Goddess and the Thief and I’m rather ashamed to say that I haven’t read any of them. Having now read the quite wonderful The Last Days of Leda Grey – this time set in the Edwardian era (and the 1970s), and published in paperback and for kindle on 3rd November – I’m kicking myself for not trying Essie Fox’s magnificent writing rather sooner.
During the oppressive heat wave of 1976 a young journalist, Ed Peters, finds an Edwardian photograph in a junk shop in the seaside town of Brightland. It shows an alluring, dark-haired girl, an actress whose name was Leda Grey.
Enchanted by the image, Ed learns Leda Grey is still living – now a recluse in a decaying cliff-top house she once shared with a man named Charles Beauvois, a director of early silent film. As Beauvois’s muse and lover, Leda often starred in scenes where stage magic and trick photography were used to astonishing effect.
But, while playing a cursed Egyptian queen, the fantasies captured on celluloid were echoed in reality, leaving Leda abandoned and alone for more than half a century – until the secrets of her past result in a shocking climax, more haunting than any to be in found in the silent films of Charles Beauvois.
Those of you who read my reviews regularly tell me that I have a few overused favourite words – two of them are “mesmerising” and “enchanting” and I make no apology for using them again while writing about this wonderful book. How could I not? Leda’s young life, the experiences that shaped the lives of Leda and her brother Theo, the passions that changed them both and the love affair that had such a massive impact and aftermath all make for an amazing read. There’s an immense depth of detail in the descriptions of and images from the world of early film – plainly written by someone with a love for the medium – bringing the whole process vividly to life. The book’s setting too is wonderful. White Cliff House becomes another character from the moment Ed – in the 1970s – begins to approach it through the encroaching undergrowth, and the studio in its grounds simply fascinating. I loved Leda’s “mirrors” as the device for revealing the story – and I was totally transported into the world they created.
I’ve seen so many comparisons to “early Sarah Waters” – yes, equally excellent and I can see it, but Essie Fox’s style is really entirely her own, with a particular talent for creating an all-consuming atmosphere and suspenseful feel that I just haven’t come across before. And the ending, as the layers of long kept secrets unfurl and the book reaches its really unexpected – but quite perfect – climax, is superb. I loved this book – and perhaps the best bit of all is that I still have Essie’s three earlier books to catch up on…
(And I really must add that although I’m not a particular aficionado of book covers – I think maybe reading on kindle has damaged my appreciation of the art – this one was absolutely perfect for the content and exceptionally beautiful.)
My thanks to netgalley and Orion Books for my advance reading e-copy.
About the author
Essie Fox was born and raised in Herefordshire. After studying English Literature at Sheffield University she came to work in London, first for the Telegraph Sunday Magazine and then for the book publishers, George, Allen & Unwin. A change of career then came about when Essie became a commercial designer – a passion that lasted twenty years until she began to write instead.
Essie now divides her time between Bow in East London, and Windsor. She is also a regular visitor to her childhood home of Herefordshire.