Tussaud by Belinda Lyons-Lee

‘Touching the dead brought good luck.’

Paris, 1794. Marie Tussaud, though to be a royal sympathiser, has avoided the guillotine by agreeing to make death masks of those famous people, including Marie Antoinette, who were executed during the Reign of Terror.

‘Surely, if she could endure just a little longer, there would come a time when she could win a game of her own design.’

Sixteen years later, Philidor, a famous magician, offers her the chance to accompany him to London. His plan is that they will create a wax automaton, which will bring them both money and fame. Marie Tussaud knows he is a charlatan, but the possibilities offered by this opportunity are too good to resist.

The opening night of their performance (the Phantasmagoria) is a disaster: Philidor allows the show to go on for too long, and the wax on the automaton melts. This disaster places the pair under financial pressure, and they are being closely watched by their Baker Street landlady Mrs Druce. But then, an unlikely lifeline is offered.

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Portland, invites them to his estate, Welbeck. In return for a private commission, he offers them accommodation and the use of his underground ballroom for a new show. He wants them to make, to his specifications, a wax automaton in the likeness of a girl named Elanor.

What a delightful gothic novel this is, full of mysterious secrets, unexpected twists and turns. Who was Elanor, and what happened to her? And why is the Duke being so secretive? Can Marie Tussaud keep one step (or more) ahead of Philidor?

Yes, I know it is fiction, but I really enjoyed Ms Lyons-Lee’s depiction of Marie Tussaud as a strong, determined woman, clear-eyed about the world she was part of and the people she was working with. Except, perhaps, for her involvement with Regington.

An assured debut novel and a very enjoyable read contained within a stunning cover, reminiscent of the toxic green wallpaper popular during the era.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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