This book really is a thing of beauty – and that's before you even open the cover. Giving it a sideways glance you might think it is actually what it purports to be – a novel straight from the late Victorian era, with a gold-embossed title, period illustrations and the look, if not the feel, of a traditional cloth-bound volume.
The illusion is maintained inside, because the debut novelist Katy Darby has wrought a truly gothic little gem that could almost have fallen through a wormhole, 125 years ago. But while The Whores' Asylum almost perfectly apes Victorian literature, it never descends into pastiche, and marries style from an earlier age with very modern substance.
The plot – or plots, because there are several narratives nested and folded in on each other – chiefly concern Oxford theological student Edward Fraser, from whose vantage point the story is told while he charts the descent into darkness of his friend Stephen Chapman, a medical student who is persuaded to volunteer at a shelter for fallen women.
There's a wonderfully gothic character in Diana, the mysterious woman whose path Edward has crossed before and whose presence at Chapman's shelter heralds tragedy and terror that threaten the two men's friendship ... and more serious consequences besides.
Darby, a graduate of Oxford herself, paints an atmospheric portrait of Oxford's seedier side, Jericho, a Dickensian stew of shadowy alleys, tenement slums and streetwalkers to rival the more over-used Whitechapel. Darby populates her world with credible characters which demand emotional involvement even as she hurtles them towards the tragic climax that her chosen genre demands. And the grotesques with which she seasons the narrative are just the right side of believable while adding welcome colour and depth to her Jericho.
Darby pulls off a masterful balancing act with her careful prose. For modern readers, the textual gymnastics of some Victorian writers, especially those leaning towards melodrama, can be tiring on the eyes. Darby manages to retain the flavour of the authors she so obviously admires – Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle – but at the same time establishes her own voice and creates a contemporary narrative.
It's a rare achievement, and it will be interesting to see whether Darby continues in this "new Victoriana" vein for her next trick, or turns her obviously considerable talent to something new.