Katharine McMahon’s The Crimson Rooms, set in the early 1920s, is told from the point of view of Evelyn Gifford, who is one of the first female lawyers in Britain. Evelyn’s life is turned upside down in the first chapter of the book when a woman named Meredith turns up on her doorstep with a young boy in tow, claiming that the boy is the child of Evelyn’s brother James, who died during World War I. There’s something mysterious about Meredith, even though the child is recognizably James’s and Evelyn spends a considerable time trying to puzzle out what the mystery is, and how she feels about Meredith. Evelyn struggles with the unreliability of memory and the past, and the knowledge that we can never truly know anyone as she falls in love with another lawyer who is involved in two of her cases – a murder mystery that seems terribly cut and dried until Evelyn starts investigating, and the case of a poor woman who is trying to retrieve her children from the care of a “charitable” institution. As with The Alchemist’s Daughter, The Crimson Roomsends on a tenuously hopeful note, though Evelyn undergoes a lot of heartache in the interim.
McMahon really shines is in portraying a vision of the past that is not rosy or romanticized but feels very realistic, and she’s got and very sympathetic female characters, including Evelyn and Meredith, but also a few of the more minor characters who are also fascinating. I think the one thing I would change is that I really dislike the novelistic convention – particularly common in historical fiction – of women who think they’re average or ill-looking being told by people around them that they’re really beautiful (this has happened to the heroines of both McMahon novels that I read.)
(Read on March 4, 2010)