The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell
Publication Date: June 18th, 2019
Paperback. 351 pages
About The Poison Thread:
"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."
I read Laura Purcell's The Companions a couple years back and really took pleasure in how well she crafted such a spooky and haunting atmosphere. I was so pleased that she created an equally haunting and uneasy atmosphere with The Poison Thread and I was completely hooked--once again--on this story.
The Poison Thread follows two women from two very different walks of life, though both end forming a rather unique and unexpected bond that is not without its complications. Ruth Butterham is on trial for the murder of her mistress--a murder which she claims she carried out via her needle and thread. This is not the only crime that Ruth claims she has carried out (sometimes unwittingly) with her needle and thread, however. Dorothea Truelove is a wealthy woman who is passionate about phrenology, the study of skull shapes and their effects on behavior, and spends much of her charity work time at the Oakgate Prison observing prisoners and their head shapes and determining whether reform is possible.
Ruth and Dorothea are both absolutely stunning and fascinating characters, and Purcell conveyed their personalities, motivations, and individual development incredibly well. Dorothea is not the most approachable character personality-wise, but there's something about her that just inexplicably draws the reader to her--possibly because of how understandable it is to be passionate about something and to try hard so hard to prove yourself to those who doubt you. She's also a mixture of being both outpsoken and quiet--she is not afraid to speak her mind, but she also doesn't feel the need to speak unnecessarily. Her interest in phrenology was also particularly interesting to explore and learn about, and it was captivating watching her go through the process of uncovering some possible truths about the process.
Ruth, in contrast, has a quietness about her that dominates her story--it's not a quietness of being shy or uncertain, but rather one of that vacillates between rage, sadness, determination, and resignation. Her story, which she shares with Dorothea (and therefore us, the readers) over the course of the book, is one that is full of heartbreak, but also utterly compelling in how it weaves together a narrative that is both believable and unbelievable, leaving the reader guessing about what really is the truth.
I think that one area where Purcell really excelled was in blending this supernatural-like thought and inspiration with the historical setting, and particularly her exploration of the differing class levels that we explore through both Dorothea and Ruth's experiences. Ruth invites us into her world of (struggle) and cruelty, whereas Dorothea introduces us into a world with its own struggles, but also to a world where we can see how everything she has is so vastly privileged from the women she meets in prison and interacts with. It's an interesting dichotomy to compare the two worlds and the two women, while also attempting to see how the two may begin to relate, if at all.
Purcell's writing is simply stunning, excellently crafted and so precise in her language and stylistic choices that this stories flows effortlessly and is nearly impossible to step away from. And in fact, even when you do physically step away from the story, it stays with you in all the best and creepiest ways possible--I'm not sure I'll be looking at a needle and thread without thinking of this book anytime in the near future.