This historic novel is set in rural Maine in the 1850s, it is winter and life is physically hard. A new maid, Lucy Blunt, turns up the household of the Burtons – their previous maid has just been found dead in an icy pond – apparently drowned. Lucy will immediately be on trial in the household – under the strict scrutiny of the other servants first and then the upstairs residents of the household, Mr and Mrs Burton. The latter, needing unspecified special care, has as her companion her sister-in-law Rebecca, who is unmarried and resentful of her place in the household.
This is a very clever and vibrant novel, compelling so that it pulls the reader along at speed. But at the same time almost casually drops more and more background details. Details that could be said to build the background – or maybe question what you have already been told. Without giving away too much of the tale, it is presented through three threads of the developing story.
We have the straightforward settling of Lucy into the household – first proving herself as a suitable and competent maid. With experience that role will change to that of “companion” to Mrs Burton thereby seriously annoying Rebecca. However, it is made clear from the very start that Lucy – if indeed that is her name – has lied to get the job, raising the possibility that everything subsequently told is a lie too. Lucy will look back to her previous life, certainly not the expected one of a kitchen maid. This will include her family background and past challenges and start the story of how she reached the place she is. The third thread will be Lucy in jail because she has been charged with killing Mrs Burton and Rebecca both – something that she is denying.
Taylor Blakemore handles all these themes, placings, characters and issues with wonderful certainty and skill. This helps to make the story so believable, even when we are faced with constant contradictions of storylines as presented by the characters. It means that the reader cannot take words on trust and has to think through the possibilities and what might be real. With complex characters and emotions, interlaced with characters needing to deal with the pragmatics of life in not ideal situations – this makes for an interesting read as one has to constantly re-assess what you have already been told. Then, of course, there are the possible murders – or were they? Not your usual crime novel, but an extremely fine one. Lots of questions, not necessarily the right answers, but the challenge of thinking through the behaviour of people.
Hilary White 5/5
The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore
Lake Union Publishing 9781542006392 pbk Jan 2020