Thursday, September 28, 2006

Darkwater Hall - Catherine Fisher

Having enjoyed Catherine Fisher's Darkhenge and Corbenic, when I spotted Fisher's Darkwater Hall on the library shelf, I didn't hesitate to pick it up.

This story is set at the end of the 19th century. Sarah Trevelyan and her dispossessed father live with Martha, a former servant, in her rundown cottage in a Cornish village. Whilst Sarah is forever grateful for Martha's kindness, her father bemoans his lost inheritance, Darkwater Hall and its estate, which was gambled away by his father fifteen years earlier. In the meantime, Sarah earns a pittance working as a pupil-teacher under the schoolmistress Mrs Hubbard. Sarah is frequently humiliated by the cruel Mrs Hubbard, but accepts it for the sake of the small wage she earns and access to the school's few books. One day, however, she finds herself unable to watch Mrs Hubbard caning little Emmeline Rowney, and Sarah challenges the bullying teacher; she accepts Emmeline's punishment in her place, after refusing to cane Emmeline in place of Mrs Hubbard. She then tells Mrs Hubbard that she can "keep her situation." However, the mysterious Lord Azrael, who is the current owner of Darkwater Hall, is visiting the school with a group of village "worthies", and observing the whole scene, gives Sarah his card, telling her to come and see him.

Now that she's without a job, Sarah fears she will no longer be able to pay the rent for herself and her sick father to lodge with Martha, but when she finally swallows her pride and goes to see Azrael, he offers her a job cataloguing the vast numbers of books in the library at her old home. Sarah returns to the house she barely remembers and learns a little of her ancestry. The Trevelyans were harsh landlords and unbending employers, hardly one of the benevolent philanthropist families of the parish. But Sarah wants her home back and also to atone for the wrongs done by her forefathers. She is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and sells her soul to Azrael for the return of her home and fortune. He agrees and says he will return in 100 years to claim his payment. The second part of the story introduces the reader to Tom, a 20th century boy whose mother is a cleaner at Darkwater Hall, which is now an exclusive private school. Tom has his own modern "demon" to beat and a battle ensues between good and evil, and past and present, but things are not always what they seem.

Fisher's transition from the Victorian era to the late 20th century is achieved successfully by a series of references: Emmeline Downey is Tom's great-grandmother, whilst Tom and his mother live in a renovated property called "Martha’s Cottage". This is a supernatural story involving alchemy, fallen angels, and a "Great Work", and is one of those hard-to-put-down books.

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