The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert

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Review by Rob Spence

We are in London at its Victorian zenith, a city of imperial majesty, and also a city where the most abject poverty exists side-by-side with the riches of Empire. Charles Lambert begins his narrative in a setting that recalls the stories of M.R. James, as a group of privileged men gather in the comfort of their club to exchange tall tales. There’s also maybe a hint of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the account that Rickman the explorer gives, of the revenant beings that he encountered in Africa. One of the listeners is Edward Monteith, a young man of leisure, and it is his story that Lambert unfolds from this point, moving swiftly away from the familiar confines of the nineteenth century ghost story into an unsettling and eerie narrative that explores desire, passion, guilt and betrayal. In Lambert’s hands, what might have been a pastiche of late-nineteenth century gothic becomes a much more impressive, fully developed novel, peopled by vividly realised characters.

Monteith is drawn irresistibly to a flower-seller he encounters after leaving a séance, and soon they are in a passionate relationship, which he feels he cannot reveal to anyone, since an affair between an upper-class man and a Romani girl offends the social mores of the day. Of course, some things are impossible to keep secret for long, and Monteith is led inexorably to a decision with horrifying and far-reaching consequences. He manages to recover his equilibrium after a sojourn in Italy, but his new life is haunted by the memory, and the uncanny presence, of his old life, which intrudes more insistently as time passes, forcing him to once again take desperate action.

Charles Lambert immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London, placing his characters in recognisable, evocative settings. I enjoyed plotting Monteith’s movements across London using Google Maps, and taking in some of the sights that he encounters in the novel. The atmosphere of unease that invades his ostensibly perfect home life is managed very subtly: there are few moments of horror, though when they do come, they are indeed horrific, and certainly made this reader reach for a stiff drink afterwards.

What is noticeable about the presence of, for want of a better word, the supernatural in the story, is that Lambert does not try to explain it, nor does he embrace it. Monteith, his American friend Daniel Giles, and other peripheral characters are strongly sceptical, yet sensitive to the way in which the inexplicable enters their lives. The narrative builds, alternating Monteith’s apparent contentment, with the growing sense of disquiet that envelops him and his household. By not ladling on the theatrics, Lambert creates a genuinely chilling sense of foreboding, which the reader longs to be resolved. I was reminded at times of the wonderful 1961 film The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which manages to engender terror without any grand guignol flourishes. The ratcheting up of psychological pressure in the face of the inexplicable yet all too physical manifestations of an other-wordly presence is managed here with exquisite judgment.

Charles Lambert is such a compelling writer, and this novel is up with his best. The reader is engaged right from the start, and the action unfolds at pace. This is a marvellous variation on some familiar gothic tropes, which manages to be completely original in its treatment, with some genuinely chilling moments. 

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Charles Lambert, The Bone Flower, (Gallic Books, 2022) 9781913547271, 238pp., paperback.

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