As the nights draw in, it is the best time to read enigmatic and ghostly things. Alison Littlewood’s latest, The Crow Garden, certainly fits the bill. Nathanial Kerner is a ‘mad-doctor’ and has recently found himself a position at the Yorkshire institution, Crakethorne Manor. As he tries to introduce new methods into a traditional set-up, he becomes fascinated with one of his patients, Mrs Victoria Harleston. She’s supposedly suffering from hysteria, but Kerner isn’t convinced and decides to delve further into her circumstances.
The key to a good gothic mystery is atmosphere and The Crow Garden has that in spades, right from its opening paragraph. Littlewood piles on the inclement weather, the shadowy corridors, and the crows that flock to the grounds of Crakethorne Manor and give the garden its name. Even when the narrative departs Yorkshire for London, swathes of fog cloak the characters and houses feel haunted instantly.
Littlewood also packs a lot of Victoriana into her novel. Kerner’s narration takes us through a host of nineteenth century issues, such as the advancement of mental health treatment, the rise of Mesmerism, gender politics, and an undercurrent of social inequality. Not only that, we also get a trip to a music hall. It’s a huge amount, but Littlewood handles it deftly, using them as context rather than weighing down her page-turning plot with them.
Occasionally, The Crow Garden suffers because its protagonist feels a step or two behind everyone else, including the reader. However, the atmosphere and tension that Littlewood creates, as well as truly fascinating figure in Victoria Harleston, ensures that this is a great seasonal treat.