Book Review: The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore
By Chris WolakJanuary 16, 2020
In her debut historical mystery, The Companion, Kim Taylor Blakemore takes readers to New Hampshire in 1855, where Lucy Blunt revisits the events that landed her on death row.
I first came across Kim Taylor Blakemore on Instagram. The photos she posts of her research drew me in. Many were in relation to her writing of a historical fiction novel about a woman set in the 19th-century. Blakemore is the author of two previous YA historical novels, Bowery Girl and Cissy Funk. I was excited to get my hands on an advance reader copy of her first adult historical mystery novel.
The Companion is the story of Lucy Blunt, a young woman who is thrown out of her home by her alcoholic father after the death of her mother. It’s 1855 in New Hampshire and young women with no family or money work in the mills or as house servants. Or worse. Lucy has perhaps done all of the above. Her time at the mill certainly did not end well.
From page one, the tale Lucy tells isn’t exactly clear. It’s not chronological but goes back and forth in time, primarily from Lucy’s time working as a maid in the Burton’s home, to being in prison for murders she’s convicted of committing there. She’s on death row, scheduled to hang. Did she do it? Or did someone else? Why would she do it? Why would someone else?
Let me back up. Lucy catches the eye of the house’s mistress, Mrs. Eugenia Burton. That’s a poor turn of phrase on my part because Mrs. Burton is blind. Her need for a companion goes beyond the standard Victorian ideal. She needs someone who can be her eyes when necessary. Weirdly, Mrs. Burton isn’t allowed out of the house. All of the doors are locked day and night. A character named Cook (who seems a bit like Mrs. Patmore from Downton Abbey, albeit a more religious version) is the carrier of the keys. There are a total of six people in the household, including Lucy. This makes The Companion a bit of a locked room mystery. The home is off in the countryside, away from town and the mill.
At the opening of the novel, Mrs. Burton’s companion is a woman named Rebecca. She’s Mr. Burton’s poor cousin who seems abusive towards Mrs. Burton. There’s also Mary. She was the housemaid who was found drowned. Her death left a vacancy for Lucy to fill.
If this all sounds a little like Mad Woman in the Attic and The Yellow Wallpaper, that’s because it is. Using the name Rebecca couldn’t have been an accidental choice. Fans of Jayne Eyre, Rebecca, and Sarah Waters’ Victorian novels will find familiar terrain in this intentionally obfuscating tale.
One of the early spats between Lucy and Rebecca highlights not only the power play between the two women, but perhaps a common 19th-century attitude towards blindness. Mrs. Burton lost her eyesight at fifteen. In the scene below, Lucy is questioning whether Rebecca secretly broke Mrs. Burton’s writing template, a device that helped the blind write their own letters.
Lucy starts out by saying, “What right do you—“ and Rebecca answers:
“Mrs. Burton is better off without pining for a past. How she used to cry. It gave me a constant headache. And she doesn’t care to mix with the women here. The way they look at her, as if she’s…”
She shook her head.
“So, you see, it’s kinder this way. Isn’t it, Lucy?” She raised her hands to her hair, lifting the dingy tresses and feathering them round her shoulders.
“Besides, it’s not your responsibility. So tell your little tale and I’ll make sure you’re out of this job and blacklisted at the mills.” She narrowed her eyes to slits. “Or has that already been your fate?”
Later in the novel, when Lucy becomes close to Mrs. Burton, “the love that dare not speak its name,” as homosexuality was euphemistically called in the late Victorian era, arises to further complicate the situation. Others in the household advise Lucy to use caution when dealing with Mrs. Burton. Is Mrs. Burton a serial seducer and abuser of the young women in her employ? Or is Lucy just saying that as she’s waiting to hang?
Lucy’s series of choices are sad, particularly as they grow out of the desperation of being alone in the world. But you’re left wondering if she’s telling the full truth or if she is the conniving one? There are plenty of factors not mentioned in this brief review that further complicate the situation. You’ll have to read The Companion for yourself and find out. Then tell me what you think because I’m not sure what to think myself.
This is no fun, historical fiction romp, but a slow psychological burn.