The Fascination by Essie Fox

The Fascination by Essie Fox

“Fascination”: An irresistable or very strong attraction,
that makes something very interesting.”

Sparked by my fascination with the 2003 HBO series “Carnivale”, I’ve long been curious about travelling shows with “freakish” exhibitions, snake oil salesmen who sell elixirs, tonics and tinctures, and unusual museums. Although “Carnivale” only lasted two seasons, it made quite a lasting impression on me. Since “The Fascination” creates a similar world, I was very glad that Orenda Books asked me to join the blog tour.

Essie Fox’s irresistible book is set in Victorian England. It revels in the tawdry glamour of county fairs, London’s own “museums of curiousities” and West End theaters, and the people who live inside these worlds. Fox lovingly explores what it means to be different or unusual, a target of revulsion or an object of adoration. This inventive book and its cast of richly drawn characters captivated me from the first chapter.

Author Essie Fox

At its core “The Fascination” is a story of family; three families in particular. Firstly, the sadistic and fearsome Lord Seabrook, who lives with his orphaned grandson Theo. Theo is terrified of, yet extremely curious about, Seabrook’s ghastly private museum of “anatomical freaks”. This museum holds a dark secret that will have a far-reaching impact on Theo and those he loves. Then there are the Lovells, twin sisters Keziah and Tilly (no longer identical due to injuries inflicted by their drunken and abusive father Alfred). He exploits their appearance to shill his “patented” elixir at county fairs. Lastly, the travelling family who lives under the benevolent rule of The Captain, who describes himself as “a musician of the itinerant persuasion.” The Captain and his family put on theatrical performances in the towns they visit that pique both the wonder and revulsion of their audiences.

Lovell brings Keziah and Tilly to the Brocas Summer fair, where the Captain and troupe are also appearing. There, they run into Theo, who mistakes Keziah for a “sprite or a mermaid”. Keziah eventually reveals to Theo:

“Tilly and me have realised that we must seek a different life. We cannot bear to go on acting out our pa’s immoral lies … or to face the other dangers he’s now bringing to our door.”

Later that night, in an inebriated rage, the father catches the twins trying to make their escape and beats them almost to death. The next morning:

“looking like some mad King Lear, he raised his head and bellowed out to all the other fairground wagons: ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless daughter, and I am cursed with two of them. Two wicked girls who plot and scheme to betray their loyal father. Who will take them off my hands? ”

The Captain, hearing this, makes a “heads or tails” bet with Alfred; if Alfred wins, the Captain “takes the daughters off his hands” and pays Alfred a small fortune. It’s no surprise that the Captain loses the bet; the coin he asks for from a passing urchin is his own, the urchin chooses heads for Alfred, and of course, both coin sides are heads. Keziah and Tilly join the Captain and his family on their boat on the Thames.

The stories of Keziah and Tilly, Theo and Lord Seabrook, and the Captain are intertwined in ways that are slowly yet deliciously revealed as the book unfolds. Members of a family are not just tied by blood, but also by love, hatred, jealousy, sorrow and retribution. Since all of Fox’s unique characters are masterful creations, I was completely invested in their respective fates. “The Fascination” kept me entranced until the very end, when there is yet one more surprise in store for the reader.

In the intricate and dazzling universe that Fox has created, the sins of the past are eventually brought to light. If you’re a fan of the strange, macabre, and unusual (based in part on historical places and events), “The Fascination” will hold you in thrall as it did me. Its message of acceptance of those thought to be odd or extraordinary is as important today as it is in this long-ago world.

Incidentally, some of the visuals that inspired Fox can be found on her website.

Fox also thoughtfully includes a bibliography that includes such intriguing titles as “Strange Victoriana”, “Morbid Curiousities”, “Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination”, and “The Unnatural History Museum”. I’ve added all of these to my “to be read” list; a testament to the lure of the ravishing world that is unveiled in “The Fascination”.

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2 Replies to “The Fascination by Essie Fox”

  1. Thank you for such a considered review. I have to say I was obsessed with Carnivale too! Still wish they’d gone on to make another series. It was brilliant.

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