Sussex, 1912. In a churchyard, villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to be seen. Here, where the estuary leads out to the sea, superstitions still hold sway.
From the moment I read those words I wanted to read this book. And I am happy to say that The Taxidermist’s Daughter more than lived up to the dark and salty promises of its blurb. From the very first page I was transported and bewitched. I was standing in a cold, wind-swept churchyard at the edge of the salt marshes in Sussex. I could smell the sea.
From there the story swept me along, intriguing, dark, sometimes eddying, sometimes rushing, gaining momentum as a river moves towards the sea. The novel’s climax coincides with a storm and the highest tide of the season, and the characters are thrown into turmoil that is both emotional and meteorological. Indeed the sea, the tides, the landscape itself weaves beautifully into the narrative, adding beauty and depth. The story was intriguing and compelling, and I liked the characters – but it was the novel’s setting, the mysterious, silver- grey marshes surrounding the village of Fishbourne, that truly won my heart.
As advertised the book does include generous lashings of that grisly yet intriguing art, taxidermy, but I found that Kate Mosse’s skillful description of the practice chased away my squeamishness, leaving me instead with a new awareness of its beauty and tradition. This feeling did not leave me, even when the story darkened, and the art of taxidermy became something more disturbing. The novel is an historical thriller- it was shortlisted for the 2015 CWA Historical Dagger Awards- and it is definitely not for the faint hearted.
Despite this, the book is incredibly beautiful. It celebrates not only the Sussex landscape, but its birdlife, too- curlew, gull, rook. Chaffinch, siskin, jackdaw. Brambling, greenfinch, linnet. I did not know a gathering of crows was called a ‘murder.’ Interested, I looked up the names for other groups of birds, and was delighted and fascinated with what I found: a group of pheasants is called a bouquet; hummingbirds and finches gather in charms; a flock of peacocks is called, delightfully, an ostentation. And how about a whiteness of swans, a pitying of turtle doves, a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens and an exaltation of larks? Is there any better way to describe a flock of birds wheeling in flight than this last?
All in all The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a dark, feathery, salty sort of book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I wish I’d read it before I went to the UK last year- I would have paid Fishbourne a visit. Maybe next time…