The Dark by Claire Mulligan

the darkI think The Dark by Claire Mulligan is going to be one of those books we hear a lot about this summer. Already it has received a fair bit of media attention in Canada, probably due to the fact that Mulligan was born in BC (that counts as Canadian, right?). I picked it up largely due to the fact that the story recounts the rise of the Spiritualist movement at the end of the 19th century. Though I don’t know much about it, the rise of spiritualism during this period has always fascinated me. Why did it become so popular at that moment? And why was it so popular among the well to-do classes?

In her story Mulligan focuses on the real-life characters of the Fox sisters – Leah, Maggie and Kate. They have been credited with starting the Spiritualist movement in the USA. However, there are many questions and mysteries in their lives that are left answered by the historical record, and this is where Mulligan so skillfully builds her story. True, Mulligan moves into the realm of unsubstantiated speculation, but that is why The Dark is fiction instead of non-fiction. Scandal plagued the lives of the Fox sisters and that translates into a pretty good yarn.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Dark is Mulligan’s use of language. It read as though it was written in the late 19th century. She completely falls into language that we have not used in a century and does it very consistently and convincingly. For me this was a bit much as I am not a fan of the 19th century style of writing and yet I can see her efforts as commendable.

The one real problem I had with The Dark was that it was long. Generally, I love a long novel, but in this case I was just waiting for it to end. In particular, so of the secondary story lines dragged for me. In hindsight I can see why they were necessary, but pushing them along a little more quickly would have been fine with me. Perhaps another reason I found it long is because I am not particularly a fan of historical fiction.

Who would like this book? As I said, I think this book will be talked about a great deal this summer, and I think it is likely that it will become a big book club pick. It has all the necessary ingredients: female protagonists, controversial beliefs, beautiful and skillful prose. The one thing that may make it a little ambitious for a book club is the length, but think of it as a challenge. It is definitely a book that will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction and good writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it nominated for a number of book awards.