Review – The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

By | February 24, 2013

Set in Victorian England, Anna Palmer finds herself confined by her husband at Lake House, a private asylum for women who deviate from what is perceived as normal. Her sin is having gone to the rescue of victims of a shipwreck, and her passion for helping those in danger of drowning stems from an experience long buried in her memory. Anna believes her release from Lake House will come quickly once others can be convinced of her sanity, but it doesn’t prove that easy. 

This novel explores the blurring of reality, where things are rarely as they appear – exemplified by the bridge over the lake – and it is a well-told tale which explores perceptions of what passes for sane and normal behaviour, and the nature of truth. Her husband is a true monster – a pious man of religion with many secrets of his own. The little insights into his thinking are well done, and his observations often aroused moral indignation. This was one of my favourites: 

Women did not age as well as men, generally. In temperament as well as in the flesh. Their weaker brains deteriorated rather than strengthened with the passing of the years. 

In addition to Anna and her repugnant husband, there are a number of supporting characters who leap off the page. I was fascinated by Doctor Lucas St Clair and his pioneering use of photography to explore signs of mental illness in the women’s faces, and the technical detail was plainly well researched. Fanny Makepeace, the matron, was a wonderful depiction of evil, with Martha Lovely, her attendant, a balancing picture of good. Then there was Catherine Abse, the daughter of Querios the asylum’s owner, who surely belonged inside the asylum’s walls more than many of its inmates. The detail about the treatments was horrifying – Mr Fludd and his revolving chair in the basement, the blood letting, the use of emetics, the freezing shower causing near drowning. 

So, did I enjoy it? I read the first third in short bursts and found it difficult to stay with, but a couple of longer spells of reading found me immersed in the horrifying world of Lake House. The narrative drive picks up considerably in the second half too – inevitably, the scene has to be set first – and the story races towards its largely unexpected and thoroughly satisfying ending. This was a whole new slant on the position of women in Victorian England, and I found it quite fascinating. I must say that the typos in my Kindle edition were a little irritating at times – Querios becomes “queries” more often than it should – but overall this was an engrossing read with a depth of period detail that should appeal to anyone who enjoyed the likes of The Crimson Petal or Fingersmith.