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Book review: The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne

The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne
The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne

The dark side of Elizabethan society takes centre stage in a powerful new psychological thriller from historian and author Pamela Hartshorne.

Based in York, where she uses the local court records as the source and inspiration for her exciting novels, Hartshorne eschews her now trademark ‘time-slip’ formula for a gripping page-turner set entirely in the last decades of the 16th century.

And it proves to be a riveting, rollercoaster ride through despair, deception, perversion and betrayal, deep inside the shadowy corners of aristocratic mansions, and onwards to the mean, stinking streets of London where danger and death are only ever a heartbeat away.

Two women – raised in the same house but with very different expectations – find their lives inextricably bound together by lies, secrets, a curse, and the dreadful deeds of a night that will haunt them forever.

Mary is happily married to wealthy merchant Gabriel Thorne, living a comfortable and orderly life in Elizabethan London. She has taken Gabriel’s sons from his first marriage under her wing and her own teenage daughter Cecily lives with them at their house in Little Wood Street.

Content in the knowledge that her husband loves her, Mary is a kind mistress to the household and is well-respected in the neighbourhood… but there is a part of her past that she can never forget.

As a small, recently orphaned girl, she was cursed for causing the death of a vagrant child as she travelled by cart to live with the Latimer family, her distant, wealthy relatives, at Steeple Tew, an old manor house in Oxfordshire.

The curse predicted that she would one day hang and since that day, Mary has tried to convince herself that she would avoid her fate. Treated as the poor relation, Mary acted as lady’s maid to Sir Hugh Latimer’s exquisitely beautiful daughter Catherine (‘Cat’) and the two became good friends.

But for many years now, Mary has been living a lie and her carefully curated world begins to falter when, one rainy day, she ventures out into London’s Cheapside on a mission of mercy and her past – in the shape of the now down-at-heel Cat – suddenly catches up with her.

With their roles reversed, and with the lies and deception Mary has fought so hard to bury beginning to claw their way to the surface, Mary must try to break the curse by finally righting the terrible wrongs of the past…

The Elizabethan world, with its constraints, inequalities and excesses, spring to life in this gritty, atmospheric mystery thriller which unfolds in a series of twists, turns and shocking revelations.

Hartshorne provides a dynamic, alternating narrative between Mary and Cat, allowing us a fascinating perspective on their dual past, and the people and events that have shaped both their fortunes and misfortunes.

As the truth is revealed and Mary’s childhood curse starts to wreak its revenge, the suspense and intrigue become electrifying with the two vividly portrayed women proving to be equally passionate and equally ruthless.

Gripping to the last page, and with a disturbing and dramatic twist in its tail, The Cursed Wife is a powerful, compelling and entertaining historical thriller.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)