Book Review: The Dark Unwinding

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Image of Welbeck Abbey by Austin Newport Ltd. (Austin Newport Limited) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Seventeen-year-old Katharine Tulman has no inheritance. She’s dependent upon her aunt who treats her more like a servant than family. Aunt Alice wants the family fortune secured for her son, and Katharine has little choice but to do what her aunt says.

Tasked with the unpleasant duty of having her uncle declared insane, Katharine travels from London to Stranwyne estate where she receives an icy welcome from the servants. The sprawling mansion has as many secrets as it does hidden passages, mysterious laughter follows Katharine through the house, and the wind howls across the moors and down the chimney like an unearthly beast.

Her Uncle Tully is brilliant but childlike. Sending him to an asylum would destroy him and deprive the world of his genius, but what can she do? Aunt Alice will learn the truth sooner or later, and if Katharine doesn’t cooperate, she may find herself in a workhouse.

Katharine must decide between a secure future or ruining the lives of her uncle and the young man she’s fallen in love with. No matter what she decides, she’ll end up with a broken heart.

The Dark Unwinding is Sharon Cameron’s debut novel, and it won the Sue Alexander Award for Most Promising New Work. The story was inspired by Welbeck Abbey and the fifth Duke of Portland. The duke spent his family fortune on elaborate projects like an underground library and marble-floored cowsheds, yet he spared hundreds of men from the misery of workhouses in the process.

The publisher summary describes The Dark Unwinding as a “spine-tingling tale of steampunk and spies, intrigue and heart-racing romance,” but the description is misleading, and I think the book is suffering in reader reviews because of it. Readers come away disappointed when it’s not the thriller they’ve been promised. It’s unfortunate because The Dark Unwinding is imaginative and well written.

The story is better described as a “gothic tale.” The mystery surrounding Stranwyne and the decision Katharine faces propel the story forward and give it the feel of classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. That’s its strength. That’s what makes it worth reading.

©2012 Kim Vandel

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