Some periods in history have style. Admittedly, beneath the veneer of any civilisation there is an underbelly of depravity. Tanith Lee is a stylish writer but her subject matter often depicts the seedier side of apparent respectability.
The time is 1934, a period when the turmoil underneath the sophisticated Europe was only just beginning to surface. By the river in an unnamed European city, Anna meets Raoul Basulte. He is obviously wealthy and she is starving and has reached the point where she is prepared to do anything for food. He takes her back to his hotel, feeds her, dresses her elegantly and asks her to go back to England with him. There, he buys her a diamond ring and declares that he wishes to marry her. Arriving at the English Country House inhabited by Raoul’s family, Anna finds herself out of her depth with the plethora servants, especially as Raoul disappears, leaving her to cope with the new situation on her own.
Almost as soon as she arrives, Anna realises that there is something strange about this family. There is a great similarity between their features indicating a small gene pool but it is their behaviour that disturbs her most. She isn’t sure whether this is what the aristocratic English do or whether the depravity belongs to just this family. In the times when she is left alone, Anna thinks back to her past. Once, in the city of Preguna, she had been a respectable woman with a job as a personal secretary. Then she had fallen in love with Árpád, a young accountant whose features were marred by a birthmark. He is someone who never expected to find a woman who could see past his disfigurement to the person he really is.
As both stories enfold, in England and in the past, they become darker. Both begin with hope but gradually the external pressures tighten around Anna. Circumstances in both situations have similarities and, in each case, Anna finds herself at the whim of others.
The novel traces undercurrents of the situations both in central Europe and the British aristocracy of the 1930s and draws on less salubrious sides of the societies. At the heart of it is a girl who is vulnerable to both.
Tanith Lee is an author who can be expected to produce plot lines that twist as a story progresses. What begins as a chance encounter that probably happened many times rapidly changes into an examination of the darker side of human nature. This is a book that has impact on first reading but a second look reveals more simmering beneath the surface. For an unsettling read that has style, this hits the mark.
(pub: Immanion Press, Stafford, UK. 189 page enlarged paperback. Price: £10.99 (UK), $19.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-907737-36-7)
check out website: www.immanion-press.com