Review | The Poison Thread – Laura Purcell

About the Book

A thrilling Victorian gothic horror tale about a young seamstress who claims her needle and thread have the power to kill

Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy, and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor, and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work brings her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted by the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets one of the prisoners, the teenaged seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another strange idea: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread–because Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations–of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses–will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer? The Poison Thread is a spine-tingling, sinister read about the evil that lurks behind the facade of innocence. 

351 pages (paperback)
Published on June 18, 2019
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The other day, I went on Twitter and asked for book recommendations. One of my followers told me about this one. She said, “This book is so up your alley it’s already at your back door.” I figured with that kind of endorsement, I had to give it a try.

I had no idea what I was in for when I started this book. I knew it had to do with sewing, and I was a little nervous about that because I generally don’t think sewing is fascinating. However, the book is so much more than that. So, if you are likewise reluctant because you see a needle and thread on the cover and think, “that’s not for me” please, PLEASE give it a try. 

The Poison Thread is told through two points of view. One, is Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress who has a fascination with phrenology, and on the other hand we have Ruth Butterham, a sixteen-year-old who was raised in poverty and has been arrested on charges of murder.

“Our relationship was a bolt of cloth spread out wide, full of endless possibilities. The pattern hadn’t been chalked. I could have loved her. I could have taken the scissors and cut panels of friendship, sisterhood. But she made the first snip.”

One of the first things that really captivated me with this novel is the Alias Grace feel to it. While there are worlds of difference between this book and Alias Grace, there are some similarities that really struck me. The way the story is told, for example, with a detailed look at both the person imprisoned, and the person who is trying to learn more. Another is a sort of slow burn intimacy that pervades the entire novel. This is, in every respect, a Victorian Gothic tale, but there is a lot going on under the surface, and Purcell does an incredible job at showing two different, interwoven stories, and revealing bits of information at the most opportune times. 

Ruth was a fascinating character. Born to an overworked seamstress mother and an artist father, she was raised in poverty and never rose above that. Her story is both heart wrenching and captivating. She is taught her mother’s trade, and soon it becomes clear she has quite a skill for sewing. Furthermore, she believes she has an ability to pour her darkest emotions into every stitch of everything she sews, which then curses whoever wears what she’s crafted, eventually ending in their death. It’s a fascinating idea, and it’s interesting how Purcell played with Ruth’s desire to both do good, and then what pushes her to come to terms (of a sort) with her ability and its effects. I also really was intrigued by how the author took this incredibly normal act, and made it (darkly) magical.

On the other hand, we have Dorothea Truelove, who is turning twenty-five, and is being pressured by her father to find a good match. She is in love with a well-regarded constable, but he is below her station and so their romance is both illicit and fraught with unspoken tension. Dorothea has an interest in the relationship between phrenology and morality, and spends much of her time at the local women’s prison interviewing criminals and measuring their heads for her research. She happens upon Ruth, and the two of them start up a sort of relationship, with Dorothea there to learn about Ruth’s life and measure her head, and Ruth basically unburdening her soul before her eventual demise.

“He wishes me pinned like a butterfly: beautiful to display, firmly in my place. Without life.”

In The Poison Thread, you get two very different characters from two very different positions. While the world stays small and close, the characters make everything seem larger than life. Purcell does an amazing job at making each character almost feel like a world unto themselves. I was captivated by their stories, and how they unraveled to an ending that, quite honestly, left me reeling. As I’ve said before, there is a lot going on under the surface in this book. A lot of subtle cues dropped that were nothing short of genius. Plenty of details that won’t matter too much to you in the moment, but will factor largely into the overall narrative. I found the way Purcell dealt with these puzzle pieces to be absolutely masterful.

This is a slow burn novel. Things start out small, and get larger and larger as the book goes on. It was around the 40% mark when I realized I could not put it down. I was up until 2am last night reading because I couldn’t stop. Once events got going, and I saw how these two completely different lives played off each other in such unexpected ways, I couldn’t look away.

This is a gothic novel, and I’d like to emphasize the gothic. Purcell’s writing is both understated and incredibly effective. The haunting feel to this book is so pervasive it almost becomes a character in its own right. I don’t think I’ve read a book that has utilized atmosphere this well, and this cleverly, before. It was something that seemed to transcend the book, and now, I still feel it when I think on The Poison Thread. It lingers.

‘Her corset,’ I said honestly, ‘is like a graveyard.’

I absolutely devoured this book. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. The ending left me shocked, and the characters seem to be haunting the hallways of my mind. Purcell is an incredible author, who knows how to use words and atmosphere to their greatest effect. The Poison Thread might be one of the biggest, best surprises I’ve come across in a while.

5/5 stars

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