‘Her fate was decided. Her death was foretold. Her past is about to be unforgotten…
1851. When Lily Bell is sold by her father to a ‘Professor of Ghosts’ to settle a bad debt, she dreams of finding fame on the London stage. But Erasmus Salt wants Lilly not as an actress, but as his very own ghost – the heart of his elaborate illusion for those desperate for a glimpse of the spirit world…
Obsessed with perfection, Erasmus goes to extreme lengths to ensure his illusion is realistic. When Lily comes across her own obituary in the paper, and then her headstones in the cemetery, she realises that she is trapped, her own parents think she is dead, and that her fate is soon to become even darker…’
The Unforgetting follows the story of Lily Bell, who has the misfortune to be sold to Erasmus Salt to act as the ghost he will summon on-stage in a time when the public were nigh obsessed with magic, gothic and the supernatural. Believing she is going to perform the likes of Shakespeare, she grows more and more concerned as her freedoms are severely restricted, she is made to dress in black and wear a veil, and discovers that she has been announced in the paper as having died, fallen from a cliff. However, for Lily, this is only the beginning of a life that turns progressively darker at the hands of a delusional, selfish and frighteningly controlling Salt, who uses her for his own purposes in more ways than one. The threads of Lily’s story are told primarily from her point of view, but also includes chapters that visit her mother and her love interest, which often rob more hope from her tale, while also offering a hint of light here and there.
Lily is primarily put into the care of Faye, Salt’s sister, who is tasked with monitoring her and making sure that she is not permitted to go out alone or be seen in anything but the costume that he demands she wear when she must be seen in public outside her performances as the ghost. As Lily’s story unfolds and elements of Faye’s behaviour become more questionable, her own narrative is unveiled through a series of flashbacks to her time working as a governess and what leads her to treat Lily as she does – and what ultimately moves her to making the most important decisions of her life, for her and for Lily. Faye is a more sympathetic character than her twisted brother, particularly because of a past that, much like Lily, leaves her at the mercy of men and forced to surrender to what others demand of her, though it is also this that makes her a source of frustration at times, leading the reader to wonder why she is permitting a cycle to repeat itself (in context, the answer is partly that, in this time, women have next to no power to fight back or deny men anything). That the narrative is ostensibly written by Faye makes her representation and what she admits on its opening page that she has fabricated all the more intriguing and something I’d like to write much more about, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers!
Salt is not a villain with redeeming features that might grant him any measure of sympathy, despite what brief episodes from his past that the reader is shown. He is obsessed not only with his work, but with his right to execute his performances in any way he chooses, at whatever cost to those who have the misfortune to be involved with or related to him. In particular, his treatment of women is downright revolting and incredibly unsettling, from the way he treats and manipulates Lily and his own sister, to his sexual proclivities. He is so focused on bending the world to his will that it seems there are no lengths that he will not go to to achieve the desired outcome, intent on exploiting those around him and gaslighting them into behaving as he wishes them to.
The Unforgetting is a haunting and often disquieting read, brilliantly written with features of gothic fiction and threads of women taking control of their own destinies in a world that would deny them. It’s out on January 9th! Thank you, Orion Books, for sending me a copy for review!