Author: Belinda Lyons-Lee
Genre: Historical Fiction Thriller; Mystery; Gothic
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Published: April 2021
This review was first published in Issue 36: Revenge/Haunted
A gothic historical fiction novel with steampunk elements set in Paris with sprinklings of the murky atmosphere of the unhygienic and seedy backstreets of London? Say less!
Tussaud is the debut novel of Australian author Belinda Lyons-Lee. Set in the early 1800s, the people (the titular character is unmistakably Madame Tussaud of wax work renown), places, and certain events are all true, but Lyons-Lee has crafted an interesting and enigmatic narrative fusing fact and fiction.
The major plot revolves around Philidor, a self-centred magician who uses Tussaud to make a wax case for a human automaton for his performance, The Phantasmagoria. When the first show fails miserably, a mystery benefactor comes to their aid while also seeking a specially commissioned piece of work.
When the 5th Duke of Portland William Cavendish invites them to his estate, Welbeck, he offers them lodging and the use of his cavernous ballroom for a new show in exchange for a private commission. He wants them to create a wax automaton in the form of a girl called Elanor, according to his instructions.
This narrative itself provides a gloomy, atmospheric, and dramatic but empathetic insight into the numerous obstacles that creative women like Tussaud faced in the early-mid nineteenth century. The writing style lives up to its word, and the whole book has a Mary Shelley-esque classic gothic air surrounding it.
The morally grey characters add a touch of hard reality to the book. To say the characters are not necessarily endearing would mean the author created complex individuals who are in turn toughened up by their own trauma combined with the trials and tribulations of living where they lived, when they lived. It’s not easy to take sides, but that’s how it’s meant to be. The author’s story further emphasises how the class hierarchy was seen not only from a sort of early Downton Abbey viewpoint, but also from a gender perspective, where women were only there to be seen and not heard.
‘Surely, if she could endure just a little longer, there would come a time when she could win a game of her own design.’
Tussaud is filled with secrets, deception, greed, desire, manipulation, and exploitation, with plenty of characters eager to take advantage of an independent woman and her inventions for their own ends. The novel also has a feeling of the ‘other’ — a classic gothic element — which reminded me of the subtle disturbing supernatural aspects that run through works like The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. If you enjoyed those books, I believe you’ll enjoy this as well.