Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Withering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Judith Rossel's Victorian intrigue is both entertaining and aesthetically rewarding. 

Orphan Stella Montgomery leads a drab and depressing life with her three aunts at the Hotel Majestic. The names of the aunts say it all: Aunt Deliverance, Aunt Temperance and Aunt Condolence. They are prim, proper and quite unforgiving. The aunts are staying at the Hotel Majestic because of the health benefits it is supposed to offer, chief amongst which is the wave bath that the establishment offers. This quite bizarre contraption rocks the patron back and forth in a bath that is serviced with hot, steaming water.

The Hotel Majestic is not a particularly cheerful place, however. It sits above the gloomy coastal town of Withering-by-Sea. It’s sort of a moody seaside version of Wuthering Heights - dark, brooding and lashed by waved. When Stella Montgomery accidently sees Mr Filbert, an elderly resident, secreting a package in one of the hotel’s Chinese urns, she returns later to dig it out. It is this package that will throw Stella into a most frightening and dangerous series of events.

Withering-by-Sea is illustrator and writer Judith Rossell’s first full length novel. It’s a genuine feat  of sustained suspense, a story that slowly reveals itself, page by page, ensuring the reader hangs breathlessly on every word. This is all set against a most brilliantly imagined world of Victorian darkness and wonder. Rossell excels at creating a novel that is dense in mood and ambience. The textures and smells of The Hotel Majestic, its imposing design, fine decor, grand stairways, long, brooding halls and hidden rooms, cling to you as you read. I’d perhaps caution against reading Withering-by-Sea alone at night: it fires the imagination so much that it’s easy to scare yourself!

Another wonderful aspect of the book is some of the characters and set pieces. Much of the action takes place at a theatre in the town. Here we are introduced to Mr Capelli and his “Educated Cats”, a troupe of performing cats who sing. Also the Flower Bells, a group of young dancing girls, featuring the feisty (and often quite funny) Gert. Rossell has really done her homework with the language used, and the cockney expressions she peppers her dialogue with make it crackle and pop with authenticity.

This is an enormously fun book. It took me back to being a child again when you first really enjoy the experience of immersing yourself in a story. The beautiful illustrations and presentation should also be noted. Withering-by-Sea has been lovingly put together, the drawings working perfectly with the text. It’s a book that is everything a book should be: both beautiful to hold and thrilling to read.

Withering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell. Published by ABC Books. ISBN: 9780733333002  RRP: $19.99

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