by Inés G. Labarta
Scotland, 1803. A rejected marriage proposal compels a doctor to escape to the Highlands, where he takes care of a local family. What started being as a rural retirement soon becomes a dangerous challenge when he realises that the inhabitants of the house are more threatening than the wild mountains themselves. In the cruellest point of the winter, a mysterious illness descends on the house, turning people into monsters. The servants claim that a bhampair is hiding among them, but Mrs McLean doesn’t give credit to their pagan beliefs and tries to find a logical explanation. The doctor wants to develop a vaccine against the disease, but he is hunted by the memories of his bloody past. Who is the real monster inside the isolated mansion in Glenfinnan?
I was sent a copy of McTavish Manor by the author in exchange for an honest review.
If there's one thing I enjoy more than historical fiction, it's Gothic historical fiction, so when I was offered the chance to review McTavish Manor I wasn't about to say no.
Set in the spooky landscape of the Scottish Highlands, McTavish Manor is a grotesque and darkly erotic tale of superstition, science and the ways in which we can turn mad and turn on each other when we're isolated. Reading this felt like reading something written in the 19th century, and I mean that in the best possible way; I took a module in Victorian Gothic in my third year of university and ended up reading a lot of short ghost stories and monster novellas for the course, and McTavish Manor is a wonderful homage to all those earlier works while still being a completely original tale in and of itself. This is the kind of story that Crimson Peak should have been.
Like many of the great Gothic stories of yore, such as Dracula and The Moonstone, McTavish Manor is partly an epistolary novella; our two scientists (one far more experimental and a little more unhinged than the other) give their accounts of the goings-on at the Manor in the form of a diary and letters, which is always a fun way to read a book as we're only told what the characters choose to share with us, or with whoever they believe will be reading the documents. What I loved most, however, is that sections in first person were dedicated to Mrs. McTavish's Yoruba servant - Mrs. McTavish refers to her only as 'dubh', the Gaelic word for 'black' - and I always enjoy it when direct voices are given back to the voiceless in historical fiction.
The real star of this novella, however, is Labarta herself. This is an excellent book if you enjoy the way a book is written as much as the story itself, perhaps even more so. Labarta doesn't sugar-coat anything - when I say this novella is dark, it really is dark - but she writes it so brilliantly and with such attention to detail that it never feels melodramatic, never erases the feeling of unease that seeps through the pages. This is the very beginning of a new author with real, raw talent for writing, and I'm really looking forward to whatever she does next.