The prologue of this novel tells of a mysterious man trying and failing to submerge a woman's clothes in a river. In the real event behind the scene, the man was the novelist Henry James, whose relationship with his cousin Minny Temple inspired this story. It is an imaginative exploration – James burned his correspondence with Minny when she died of tuberculosis in 1870, aged 24.
In London, in 1861, Emily Hudson has been expelled from boarding school for an "abundant defiant life" which includes day-dreaming, speaking her thoughts and a close friendship with another student. Her parents having died of consumption, she is sent to New England to live with an uncle. Moving from one cold and claustrophobic institution to another, Emily finds she is an unwelcome reminder of her similarly wild mother. Admiring her "gift of pure unadulterated life", only her sickly, literary cousin, William, treats her with any kindness. William's limited professional success doesn't affect his belief that he will be a writer "as great as Mrs Eliot, or Flaubert or this Trollope". He boasts that his writing is to be "a gilded web to catch people in".
After she is abandoned by her uncle, William takes Emily (as James refused to take the dying Minny) to London. The tone darkens and the structure tightens as William's alternate obsession and neglect test Emily at every turn. He, coldly aesthetic, uses her natural vitality to create great tragic heroines. Where Emily differs from these characters, and the real Minny, is in her growing sense of independence and her own creative ability. She refuses to be shackled or "submerged" by masculine forces.
Comparisons will be made with The Outcast, the acclaimed debut by the novelist's sister, Sadie Jones. The narrative prose here is more dense and the use of the epistolary form provides a multi-layered perspective. The psychological tension subtly takes hold of the reader and does not let go. This is a wonderful book and it will not disappoint.