The Whores' Asylum, a debut novel, is a tale of friendship, love, sin and criminality set in late 19th century Cambridge and Oxford. The comparison to one of my favourite historical novelists, Sarah Waters, also caught my attention. Sadly, I was a little bit disappointed.
Edward Fraser, the primary narrator, is a Cambridge graduate who has chosen to continue his theological studies at Oxford, and becomes good friends with his room mate Stephen, a medical student. He is dismayed when Stephen starts working with the local fallen women, and even more so when Stephen announces he has fallen in love - as he has met Stephen's beloved, Diana, before.
This should be really intriguing, yet I never felt sufficiently emotionally engaged by Darby's characters to care about what happened to them. I think there is a problem with the structure of the novel.
Darby really overuses the device of enclosing various stories within other narratives. The novel is presented as a bundle of papers left to be opened after Fraser's death, then there is a letter from him to his son. After telling the story of his friendship with Stephen up to their quarrel, the story flashes back to his Cambridge days. Then there is a long letter from Stephen. There is even a letter from the mysterious Diana herself, introduced by yet another note from Edward. The effect of this structure was that I felt really distanced from the characters, and it made the whole novel feel a bit like an introduction to a main story which never happened. Also, the opening Editor's note and the letter which forms the Prologue didn't really add to the storytelling or give any extra insight into the main story, they just made it clear that the narrator is already dead. I like historical novels to take me back into the period when they are set, not to keep reminding me what a distant past they are set in.
The meat of the story is a bit of a melodrama/tear jerker, but it is so buried in other narratives that I was not sure I cared. I was far more interested in Diana's story than in most of the rest of the book - this was the part that the title refers to and the core of the story, but it comes two thirds of the way into the novel.
Katy Darby does write well, in flowing narrative sentences which convey a convincing flavour of the Victorian setting. I understand that she has published a number of short stories and I would like to try some of her other work. I am hoping that her next book doesn't have such an exasperating structure.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk