You know those books, where you look at the book, then look at reviews, then back at the book and think, “Am I reading the right book?” The Woman in Black was one of those books for me. It seems like everyone loves it, my edition is even part of the Vintage Classics* range, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was a chore to get through. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for it… or maybe it’s just not the right book for me.
The premise is enticing: a young solicitor goes to stay in an old mansion to sort out the paperwork of the recently deceased owner, only to discover it’s haunted by a mysterious woman in black. Doesn’t that sound thrilling? Alas, it is not. Not one bit. Of the 160 pages (yes, this book is tiny), it felt like only about five of them contained something actually interesting. The rest was filled with Arthur walking, Arthur eating, Arthur thinking about walking and eating, Arthur talking about walking and eating, Arthur looking around, Arthur riding a bike, Arthur talking about looking around and riding a bike and Arthur thinking and talking and walking a little bit more. The actual scares were few and far between, and when they came I was so close to falling asleep from the long, descriptive passages that I barely mustered a goosebump.
I like descriptive writing when the thing that is being described is interesting or beautiful, or the writing itself is interesting or beautiful. But Arthur describes everything and everyone he comes across, even if he only spends five minutes in a room or never meets that person again. It was all just so tedious. The writing itself was dull, and although it's in the style of a Victorian novel, it felt rather forced in several places, and jarred with the un-Victorian setting.
That’s right, don’t let the movie posters fool you – this book is not set in Victorian times. It’s actually never exactly clear what time period it’s set in. I’m guessing the early 1900s. Arthur refers to the Victorian period as though it was a fair while in the past, and speaks of a “pony and trap” as though it’s a novelty over a car. There’s electricity everywhere and apparently a battery-operated torch. But there’s no mention of World War I, something which would have shaped Arthur’s life and personality had the book taken place during or after that period.
There’s not much of a secondary cast to speak of – in fact, my favourite character was the dog. She was adorable, and the scariest scene for me actually involved her. There were a few other parts which were mildly creepy, but my butt remained firmly far back from the edge of my seat. The central mystery around the woman in black was so predictable, and even though I was waiting for it, the climax felt rushed and ultimately unsatisfying.
I’m trying to find something positive about my reading experience but to be honest I can’t think of anything. I’m hoping the movie is better. It won't take much.
Published: 2007, Vintage Classics (this edition)
Get It: AbeBooks
*Random note: How old does a book have to be to be dubbed “vintage”? This one was first published in 1983. Not what I’d call a “vintage classic”, even if it is written in ye olde language.