The House on Vesper Sands

Reviewed by Sydney Jason

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell, Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 408 pages, $16.95

Set in London in 1893, this gothic novel follows two main characters through an investigation of the mysterious events that took place at Lord Strythe’s house. One, an Octavia Hillingdon, is a young woman of reputable birth that unconventionally works as a reporter for The Gazette and rides a bicycle around town as her means of transportation. The other, Gideon Bliss, is a young adult studying at a university in Cambridge that comes to London to visit his uncle Neuilly after receiving an urgent letter about dangerous things to come.

Gideon arrives in London only to find that his uncle is missing and that a seamstress, a Miss Tull, has died that very same night. It appears that she was working on a dress for Lord Strythe and jumped from a window on the top floor of his house. While looking for his uncle, he comes across an abrasive Inspector Cutter that is investigating the particulars of Miss Tull’s death as there may be a connection to a case of several missing women. Gideon tags along because he realizes that he knows, and was once courting, one of the missing girls.

Octavia has been writing about nothing but women’s high societal affairs for The Gazette, and she is longing for something more. After what we can assume have been numerous arguments on the subject, her editor finally throws her a bone by assigning her to look into the Spiriter’s business. Rumor has it that souls are being stolen in Whitechapel. Octavia is determined to get to the bottom of this and relate it to the puzzling case about the girls that are seemingly vanishing into thin air.

O’Donnell does a great job of interweaving the two separate investigations so that the story slowly fills in the blanks of the mystery, and we’re not given too many details all at once. In doing this, he gives us that gratifying feeling that we know more than any of the individual characters does, but he also keeps us hooked for the big reveal at the end of the novel. We’re along for the rollercoaster of a ride as all of the characters are gradually making their way to the place where the characters all come together, and whose name is the title of this mysterious tale: The House on Vesper Sands.

Another amazing accomplishment is that O’Donnel has seamlessly woven multiple genres into this single tale. On the surface level, it may just seem like another mystery book with a crime-solving duo. Think again. There are also aspects of horror and romance, and supernatural elements all carefully fitted into the story to complement what some may say is an overdone investigative trope.

I found myself often comparing this story to Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper. Not only are the two stories set around the same time and in the same city, but they also revolve around the disappearance and/or deaths of working-class women from the area known as Whitechapel. Another similarity is that the main character of Maniscalco’s book, Audrey Rose, is an upper-class young woman that chooses to perform autopsies with her uncle despite society’s standards. This leads to her investigating the Ripper case along with another student of her uncle, Thomas.

However, one thing that sets The House on Vesper Sands apart is its astonishing feeling that it is authentic to the time. While many people write stories that take place in the past, not all of them make it feel quite this authentic. Not only is the dialogue exceptionally written to fit the time, but the entirety of the novel is. The whole thing reads as though it could have been written in the nineteenth century. If you enjoy fantastical Victorian-era literature, or at least novels set during that time, I simply cannot recommend this novel to you enough.