It was a pleasure to join in with the cover reveal back in April, but today it’s an even greater pleasure to share my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen. Her first venture into historical fiction, this book was published by Orion Books for kindle, in hardback, and as an audiobook on 9th July. My thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading copy (provided via netgalley). Goodness, I was so looking forward to this one…
Viola has an impossible talent. Searching for meaning in her grief, she uses her photography to feel closer to her late father, taking solace from the skills he taught her – and to keep her distance from her husband. But her pictures seem to capture things invisible to the eye…
Henriette is a celebrated spirit medium, carrying nothing but her secrets with her as she travels the country. When she meets Viola, a powerful connection sparks between them – but Victorian society is no place for reckless women.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, invisible threads join Viola and Henriette to another woman who lives in secrecy, hiding her dangerous act of rebellion in plain sight.
I’ve always very much enjoyed Julie Cohen’s contemporary fiction – and although I was looking forward to this one, a real departure from her previous books, I’ll admit I did wonder how the Victorian setting would work with the book’s themes. And I really needn’t have worried for an instant – this book was an absolute triumph and I enjoyed it very much indeed. And, as always when you love a book, it makes the review far more difficult to write – I so want to do it justice.
I’ve noticed the words “slow burn” in a few of the early reviews, and I can only agree – but that’s very much a positive, as it’s important to establish the characters and to engage the reader in their lives. And what enthralling lives they are. Viola is coming to terms with her father’s death, newly married to Jonah, her childhood friend: the marriage had always been promised, and we follow them as they establish their new life and home on the Isle of Portland. It’s an uneasy marriage – this is a couple who really don’t know each other, drawn together by obligation and expectation rather than any real or deep affection, and their new relationship is complicated by the echoes of Jonah’s time in India and the reverberations from a significant relationship he experienced there. The other primary character is Henriette, who draws the eye every time she appears – a celebrated medium whose gift might well not be all it seems.
The relationship between those three main characters is what primarily drives the story – along with the unexpected repercussions from Viola’s photography and the spirit images she captures. But we also dip into their pasts – seamlessly and smoothly, gaining increasing insight into the experiences that shaped them and influenced their lives.
The writing is quite superb – there’s an exceptional sense of place and time, it’s rich in detail about the art of photography and the Victorian cult of spiritualism, and the characters are quite wonderfully drawn. It’s a book that examines love – the emotion at times is wholly palpable, and I really enjoyed the way the characters slowly unfurled. The writer’s craft is extraordinary too – I was particularly struck by the sensuousness of the descriptions of Delhi, invoking all the senses, the scent of jasmine and the heat rising from the pages.
And then there’s the complexity of the relationships – the layering of secrets, the deceit, the grief and anguish, those blissful moments of sheer joy and unexpected discovery. The book’s themes too are compelling, as is the way they’re explored – the whole nature of love and sexuality, but also prejudice through both gender and class, and the recurring issue of faith.
You’ll read far better reviews, but I do hope I’ve managed to convey how much I loved this book – definitely one of my books of the year, and recommended most highly.
About the author
Julie Cohen grew up in the western mountains of Maine. Her house was just up the hill from the library and she spent many hours walking back and forth, her nose in a book. She studied English Literature at Brown University and Cambridge University and is a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing, including classes for The Guardian and Literature Wales. Her books have been translated into seventeen languages and sold a million copies worldwide: Together and Dear Thing were both Richard and Judy Book Club picks. Julie lives in Berkshire with her husband, son and a terrier of dubious origin.