In previous novels such as The Quincunx and The Unburied, Palliser has proved expert at dissecting the tortured nerves of the 19th century, exposing religious angst, drug addiction and sexual obsession. He now focuses on another great Victorian terror, that of social rejection, and creates around it a high-class novel of Gothic suspense, a spider's web of intrigue and violence.
The framework is reminiscent of the beginning of The Turn Of The Screw. A journal found in a record office records the experiences of young Richard Shenstone, sent down from Cambridge on the winter of 1863 for conduct so fearful that it cannot at first be mentioned and is only gradually revealed to the reader. But Richard has even more worries, for his mother has inherited a gloomy, decayed property near a coastal marsh, and this must now be his home. He discovers a strange household: there is some mystery surrounding his deceased father and the family is penniless.
His mother, who has aged so much she is barely recognisable, and sister Euphemia (a significant name) are deeply troubled, and, most shockingly of all within their constricted world, Euphemia is refused tickets for the local ball. Richard's flight from Cambridge can only add to their disgrace in a village where to be "cut" by the local gentry is social death.
But cuts of a more literal kind abound in this neighbourhood and Richard is soon buried in problems up to his ears. Someone is mutilating animals at night and anonymous letters are circulating in the neighbourhood – it is a persuasively authenticating touch that the discoverer of the journal finds them carefully pasted in so the reader may be judge of their likely authorship. When an aristocratic rake is murdered, Richard, the outsider to this strange community, finds himself accused of murder. Even his mother believes him capable of writing the anonymous letters and committing acts of extreme brutality, while his sister has her own secrets.
His only ally seems to be the maid, Betsy, with whom he conducts a lustful affair while at the same time falling in love with a local beauty: here, the device of the "journal" allows Palliser to give us Richard's sexual experiences, conveniently transliterated from the Greek letters in which he shamefacedly records them. Through the intimacy of the notebook form we can be given that fully-fleshed Victorian sexual dimension.
The novel reveals the nasty underbelly of 19th-century society: Dickens without sentimentality or euphemism. Palliser also includes some splendidly rounded minor characters, including a wonderful literary descendant of Jane Austen's Miss Bates.
As the mysteries multiply, the novel builds to another "severance", just as Richard was cut off from his alma mater. He manages to conquer his addiction, cutting himself off from his supplies, and learns the truths behind the various mysteries, including the real story of his parents' courtship and marriage. The truth, dreadful though it is, will in a sense set him free. Palliser adds the modern pleasure of ambiguity to this rich and authentic confection of Gothic suspense.