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Why did I decide to read Essie Foxs second novel when I found her first, The Somnambulist, distinctly average? Im not sure, but Im very glad I did, because this book is SO much better than her debut.Elijahs Mermaid is set in mid-19th-century England and explores both sides of Victorian society: the cast of characters is split between the members of a comfortable, middle-class family and the inhabitants of a notorious brothel. More specifically, the story focuses on Pearl, an orphan raised in the brothel and (at least at the beginning) ignorant of her future fate, and Lily and Elijah, twins who live in the country with their grandfather, a writer of fairytales. From the start, there are dark undercurrents to all the characters lives, but these become more and more dominant as the plot progresses, starting with a chance meeting between the three protagonists in London.Delivering on the promise that occasionally shone through in The Somnambulist - and actually living up to all those Sarah Waters comparisons this time - Elijahs Mermaid is a rich, meaty, involving story, packed with gothic details and delicious twists. As with all the best historical fiction, its detail has clearly been backed up with meticulous research, which adds interest and makes the machinations of the plot all the more believable. To say too much more about what happens would give away details which I think any potential readers would be better off discovering for themselves, but its consistently enthralling and well-paced: I felt like I was disappearing into an alternate life every time I picked it up. The narrative is largely split, in alternate chapters, between Pearl and Lily: I did find their voices rather similar (Pearls is, I suppose, slightly more coarse - although barely offensive by modern standards!) but this didnt hinder my enjoyment of the book at all. In any case, (most of) their experiences are so different that its not exactly hard to tell their tales apart.I only have one thing to really complain about, and that is the relationship between Pearl and Elijah. Presented as the linchpin of the plot - indeed, from the title you would assume its the whole point of the thing - its actually rather weak, and I could never believe the pair were truly that enamoured with one another. I dont think this was helped by the fact that the reader never got to hear Elijahs own voice (apart from a few brief diary entries) and, in contrast, the brother-and-sister dynamic between the twins was very well-realised. I could believe that Pearl would have latched on to Elijah - after all, she had nobody else to pin her hopes on - but I needed to understand more about why he would have returned her feelings, knowing so little about her. Ultimately, I couldnt root for the great love between these two characters when I didnt believe it could have been love to begin with.That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed dipping in and out of the world of Elijahs Mermaid - a world I found it easy to lose myself in. Im also happy to say that it is clearly demonstrative of Foxs progression as a writer, which is particularly impressive since its exactly the same sort of book as her debut, ie an homage to the Victorian gothic novel. Here, however, the twists arent laboured or unnecessary (one or two were slightly predictable, but not heavy-handed), the characters are more clearly drawn and the language, while lush and highly descriptive, enhances the story rather than holding it back. Im glad to report my last book of 2012 was a really good read.

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