Thursday 16 March 2023


Book review: The Company by J.M. Varese

They say not to judge a book by its cover but in the case of The Company by J.M. Varese I am so glad I did. I'm not normally one for novels described as a "gothic thriller" as my mind instantly goes to scary horror scenarios and that's not my cup of tea. But the stunningly intricate design on this cover gave me the vibes of a historical fiction with a magical realism twist, such as The Binding by Bridget Collins and The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale, which is way more up my street. And I do think that's a more accurate categorisation of this haunting story.  

Lucy Braithwhite has grown up as a heir to Braithwhite & Company; a British manufacturer of luxury wallpapers. For as long as she can remember, the company has been run by the men in her life – and she kept a distance from the inner-workings of the manufacturing process. When she was a child it was her father who was in charge and when he died under tragic circumstances, the torch was passed onto Mr Luckhurst, who also became a surrogate father to herself and her brother John. But when Luckhurst too passes away, suddenly the older men are no longer there to run the company. 

John should take charge, but he's always suffered from ill health and can't run everything by himself. So when the young Julian Rivers, apprentice to Luckhurst, steps up to the plate, Lucy and John think he's the solution to all their problems. However, newspapers have been writing about the potential health dangers of the addition of arsenic in wallpaper for a while – and it's only a matter of time before Braithwhite & Company gets embroiled into the scandal. After all, their luxury wallpapers are known for their vibrant colours – the exact reason companies started adding the dangerous component in the first place.

On top of that, Lucy starts doubting whether Julian can actually be trusted while John has inexplicable symptoms and health setbacks. And that's before Lucy herself starts seeing things that are seemingly impossible, making it harder and harder for her – and the readers – to distinguish fact from fiction. There is a darkness hidden in the walls of the Braithwhite house, one that may go even deeper than the arsenic slowly taking more and more lives...

Ahead of reading this novel, I had no idea that arsenic used to actually be used to create the vibrant colours of wallpaper – and from a 21st century perspective this seems absolutely mad to me. A pretty paper on the wall just doesn't seem worth the health risks that arsenic brings with it. Especially in such an intimate space as one's home. But then again, I didn't live in Victorian England so am not sure what the general knowledge about the implications at the time truly was. Not to mention, of course, societal expectations and norms guiding people's decisions. 

That fascinating part of history aside, the tension is palpable throughout this read and author J.M. Varese has done an excellent job with pacing and plot developments to keep us on our toes. Revelations come only very slowly – or not at all – to keep readers second-guessing and bring the more fantastical elements alive on the pages. Even after having finished it, I'm still not entirely sure what was truly behind some of the suffering and hardship of the Braithwhite's family. Was it all orchestrated by people or did something inexplicable have a hand in their misfortunes? We may never know. 

The Company by J.M. Varese is a highly original historical fiction novel. It's tense, compelling, and a bit of a slow-burn in the best possible way. If you love well-researched and atmospheric tales that make you think about it long after turning the final page – then you cannot go wrong with this one.   

The Company by J.M. Varese is published today by John Murray Press and you can now buy a copy from your favourite local book shop!

Disclaimer: This book was gifted to me by the publisher, but this has not impacted this honest review.

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