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The Other Lives of Miss Emily White

The Other Lives of Miss Emily White by A. J Elwood from @TitanBooks #BookReview #Horror #GothicHorror

The Other Lives of Miss Emily White by A. J Elwood

Titan, p/b, £9.99

Review by Tori Borne

The front cover for The Other Lives of Miss Emily White. The title is in a black circle in the middle of the page. Around the title is a white band with the same image of a woman around it. In each corner is elaborate detail.

The year is 1864 when Ivy is thrust from her home on a Sussex farm and into a Yorkshire Boarding School for young ladies. Hoping to craft her into the perfect image of femininity and grace, her grandparents enrol her in Miss Dawson’s Seminary, casting the humble, working-class Ivy into a sea of well-bred young ladies who decidedly look down on her.

Alone and without friends, Ivy becomes excited when the new teacher, Mademoiselle Emélie Blanc, or Miss Emily White, arrives in tragic fashion – soaked by the rain and smeared in the blood of the horse her presence spooked.

Taken in by Emily’s kindness and bonding with her through their shared love of painting, Ivy becomes infatuated with the mysterious Miss White. But Ivy is not the only one fascinated by the curious new addition to the seminary, as rumours circulate that Emily has been seen appearing in two places at once; simultaneously spotted picking flowers whilst conducting a class or requesting a task from pupils one minute to having no recollection of doing so the next time they meet…

As chaos and tragedy descend upon the school in the wake of Miss Emily White, her future threatened by the vile rumours and accusations made against her, Ivy will go to great lengths to protect her only confidante – and her only friend.

The Other Lives of Miss Emily White is the second novel from author Alison Littlewood, published under the pen name A.J. Elwood following 2021’s The Cottingley Cuckoo. The novel is reminiscent of, and utilises, the traits of the classic gothic novel, with its isolated setting of a boarding house where the weather always seems to be a little dreary, from cloudy skies to thick mist that absorbs sound.

I found the heavy influence of the gothic novel an absolute delight in this book and thought that Elwood expertly introduced many of the genre’s most defining features throughout. The use of doubling, and the theme of doubles, is a constant throughout the work: from something as insidious as a doppelgänger to something as mundane as a pair of matching chestnut horses. Whilst this could have easily become overused, Elwood balances it well by also showcasing our main character’s deep-seated loneliness – Ivy is alone, having lost her sister, and then been thrown into a school amongst girls who look down on her, seeing her as a lowly farm girl, an unmannered ‘hoyden’.

She’s a lonely ‘other’ in a house filled with perfect dolls. She becomes infatuated with her new teacher, another woman othered and mocked by the schoolgirls. This kinship quickly transcends into obsession, making for an interesting narrative perspective as it becomes clear that our narrator, Ivy, may not be telling the story as truthfully as she may suggest. The novel does this with a subtlety – I wanted to believe Ivy and understand why she so vehemently defended Miss White, but I also could plainly discern that she was glossing over important details or misconstruing truths in an attempt to vilify the other characters.

The only issue I found with this novel is that, at points, it felt a little repetitive. Some chapters felt unnecessary and drawn out, not overly moving the story along – whilst they did build upon the world and give insight to the cast of characters, I think that Elwood already succeeds in doing this in other parts of the novel and could have removed these chapters without losing anything of substance. However, this is a minor criticism, as Elwood’s prose is beautiful and engaging, so whilst I felt these chapters didn’t add much to the story overall, I enjoyed reading them nonetheless.

I went into this book with high expectations and was extremely pleased with what I found. This is another novel that fans of ‘dark academia’ will likely enjoy, but the novel is far greater than that. It’s genuinely eerie and tense and beautifully gothic in its aesthetic – it’s an easy recommendation from me.

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