Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Set in a seaside village in Victorian Somerset, The Madness is the story of fourteen-year-old Marnie, who is biding her time until she becomes a ‘dipper’, one of the women who assist the ladies who come to take the ‘sea-cure’. Her Ma lives with Smoaker, and they run the bathing machines business on the ladies beach at Clevedon. Marnie’s Pa was a fisherman, lost to the sea long ago, although she still believes he’ll come back one day.
Many in the village regard Marnie with distrust, in part due to her withered leg – she had polio as a child and walks with a crutch – but in the water she can swim like a fish. One day a boy died while she was swimming, and they thought she lured him out like a siren and let him drown – that guarantees her unpopularity.
When the local nobility, the de Clevedons, arrive back at their seaside mansion nearby, all talk is of how Lady de Clevedon has come to take the cure and how it’ll be good for business. The drowned boy is forgotten, and Marnie is kept busy helping Ma and Smoaker. When Marnie meets Noah while his bath-chair-ridden mother Lady de Clevedon takes the sea cure, he is intrigued by her, and writes in his diary:
There was a strange girl on the beach. I could not help but stare at her. She looked a wild little thing, with a tangle of dirty yellow hair. But she had the most beautiful face I have ever seen. I am sure she cannot belong in this place. Though I suspect I shall have plenty enough time on my hands to find out more about her.
Over the coming weeks, as Lady de Clevedon’s poor health keeps them from returning to London, he gets many more chances to get to know Marnie better. They become good friends, and they meet at night on the beach where they swim together, and Noah sneaks her into the Manor to show off his home. They become even closer friends over the weeks, and when Noah returns to London, he promises to meet her the night he comes back.
It is never going to work – these between the classes romances almost never do. In reality Marnie is no more than a diversion for Noah, who has his sights set on marriage to Cissie back in London. Marnie believes otherwise. She loves Noah and he will be her salvation. When the de Clevedons return for the opening of the village’s pier, Cissie and her family are with them, and Marnie is rattled:
…a sick and horrible uncertainty crawls through me insides. Me hand drops by me side. I stand and stare, watching the young lady’s dark eyes follow Noah’s mouth. I see how pretty she looks with her black hair dressed in long ringlets. I see how her rose-coloured gown with its wide ruched skirts curves into her waist and shows off her creamy white shoulders. I see how Noah is looking at her, with his head on one side and his eyes lowered. I’ve never seen him look like that before. I stand and watch until me teeth are chattering so much that me whole jaw hurts. Only then do I tear me eyes away and turn to go.
She’s doomed of course, and when Noah doesn’t turn up for that assignation, her passion begins to turn into something altogether darker, obsession. She must have Noah. You can probably imagine how events will end up from here, but the path is twisted and not entirely predictable.
Rattle has done her research into the Victorian obsession with modesty in their sea-bathing habits, she brings the occupation of being a dipper to life brilliantly. Being a dipper was a real vocation, and there was one famous lady at Brighton, Martha Gunn, who was a legend in her own lifetime for the length of her career – evidence of the benefits of the sea-cure.
If the first third of this novel concerns Noah and Marnie’s meeting, and the last the results of Marnie’s obsession, the middle section provides a bit of a breather. Progress comes to Clevedon with the building of its pier, (a real pier as on the front cover). This puts the bathing beach out of action for a season; Ma and Smoaker must find other ways to make a living for now.
I couldn’t wait for Noah to return and the action to get going again. As much as I enjoyed the historical detail, I was hooked by Marnie and needed to know how it would end.
Anyone who is familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s beautiful and sad tale of The Little Mermaid, will recognise much of her character in Marnie. The mermaid who, totally at home in the sea, trades her voice for legs and each step a painful one. Marnie however, unlike Andersen’s mermaid, is not going to suffer in silence and let her love go unrequited without a battle.
Although written for teens and published by YA specialists Hot Key Books, The Madness didn’t lack anything you’d expect from an adult novel of doomed romance, I loved it. The relationship between Marnie and Noah was handled sensitively, and once things begin to unravel it got good and dark. I’ve been recommended Alison Rattle’s first novel, The Quietness too – it’s another dark Victorian tale, definitely one for the wishlist.
Annabel is one of Shiny New Books editors. She likes a good paddle, but doesn’t like the sand and salt that get everywhere when sea-swimming.
Alison Rattle, The Madness, (Hot Key Books: London, 2014) 978-1471491039, 325 pp., paperback original.