The Plot: June, 1852. England. Orphaned Katherine Tulman owes everything to her Aunt Alice. Not in a good way. When Katherine was left orphaned, Alice was the one who took in her late husband’s niece. Aunt Alice makes it known that in every possible way that without Alice, Katherine would be on the streets. With nothing. Aunt Alice fears that her husband’s eldest brother is spending all his money, which will mean nothing left for Alice’s son.
Aunt Alice’s instructions are clear: Katherine is to travel to Stranwyne Keep, the family estate. Get proof that her uncle is incapable of handling his own affairs. Report back to Aunt Alice and her solicitors, so that Alice can seize control of the family fortune and property on behalf of the sole living heir, her own son, Robert. (The family property goes strictly to the eldest living male heir, so Katherine, as a female, is excluded.) Katherine agrees, because as a poor orphan with no prospects, her only hope for future food and shelter is that young Robert gains his inheritance so he can, like his mother before him, take care of the poor relative.
Katherine arrives at Stranwyne. She meets her uncle Frederick. Aunt Alice is both right, and wrong, about what is happening with her uncle and the Tulman fortune. Her uncle is child-like, who lives with odd self-imposed rules and is also a brilliant inventor. Money has been spent on the inventions; but money has also been spent in taking 900 men, women and children from the workhouses of London to create a community that, given time, will not just be self-sufficient but also a source of income. The longer Katherine stays, the more she becomes attached to her uncle and the local villagers; but she cannot forget that it is her aunt who ensures her future. What should she do?
The Good: Uncle Frederick’s inventions are, for the most part, automatons. The descriptions of them seem almost fantastical; but this is not a story of magic or fantasy. It’s historical fiction, and the described automatons reflect the science of the day. Cameron’s website includes links to some videos of automatons. Stranwyne is also based in historic reality: Welbeck Abbey. I love how two of the aspects of this book are things that seem so unreal or unlikely that one could think The Dark Unwinding is a fantasy. It is not. Instead, it’s the type of historical fiction I really enjoy, grounded in lesser-known history.
Katherine is an interesting character, between a rock and a hard place. Aunt Alice is a nasty bit of business. When Katherine meets some resistance and suspicion from her uncle’s employees, Katherine thinks “the normalcy of being in a room with with a woman who despised me had restored some of my common sense.” Katherine, despite herself, wants more from life even if she cannot voice it, cannot dream it. She decides to delay reporting back to her aunt, and as each day goes by, she grows closer to the villagers: the housekeeper/cook, Mrs. Jeffries; her 18 year old nephew, Lane; Davy, a young mute boy; Ben Aldridge, an engineering student from Cambridge studying her uncle’s inventions. All seem to share a common goal: convince Katherine to not tell the truth about Uncle Tully’s condition. Are their friendships, are the flirtations of Lane and Ben, to be trusted? Katherine isn’t even sure she can trust herself: she starts sleepwalking and having memory loss.
I loved the idea of the Tulman family (Frederick’s mother, not his brothers or his sister in law) trying to figure out a way to protect Frederick and the money; and the solution of creating a self-sufficient village. Invest in crafts and industry, an investment of several years, and yes, it will cost money at first, but in the long run it creates a home and livelihood for people in addition to preserving enough family money. I also loved Uncle Tully and his inventions. Can all these people survive Aunt Alice and the laws that seem to be on her side? I also loved the Stranwyne Keep itself: full of rooms and hallways and pathways.
Finally, I loved that The Dark Unwinding surprised me. First, by not being a fantasy. Second, by it’s interesting look at history. Next, by Katherine herself, damaged and hurt and learning for the first time to trust and love. Finally – the ending! So unexpected yet it makes sense. And it’s brave because it makes sense but it’s not what the reader wants. The Dark Unwinding rather gives the reader what he needs. A good story.