The Child Cephalina by Rebecca Lloyd - 2019
The Child Cephalina, a dark work in the Gothic tradition, is set in London, commencing in 1850. I was mesmerized by this book from the very start. Rebecca Lloyd has earned a place of honour in the company of William Hope Hodgson, Angela Carter, W. W. Jacobs, Algernon Blackwood and my favourite Ireland's Sheridan Le Fanu.
The story is narrated by Robert Groves, a confirmed bachelor. He lives with his long time housekeeper Tetty and a fourteen year old boy Ebast who helps around the house. Robert is doing research for a book he is writing about children from the poorest parts of London. Once a week he interviews some of them, trying to discover how they live and survive. Many live on the very savage streets of impoverished parts of London. He feeds them so they are willing to talk. One day a very strange girl, Cephalina, about eight shows up, with a disturbing fey beauty.
Teddy, a woman from a village straight out of Thomas Hardy, at once sees the girl as a dark creature, a danger to the household. Robert is fascinated by her but he does not want to upset Tetty, who very much runs the household, so he is cautious. He does know what can happen to beautiful young girls on the streets of London and he feels protective to her. He dismisses Tetty's warning as just country superstition. Lloyd paints a marvelous picture of Cephalina.
Getting London street children to open up is not easy for Robert Groves, many of them are petty criminals and they fear being turned into the police. On his first encounter with Cephalina he learns her probably now deceased mother gave her to the Clutcher family. Cephalina refers to them as her "owners". Robert is afraid she may be sold sexually to the many gentlemen that visit the Carruthers.
Initially the household is struggling financially, Tetty is stressed trying to manage things and often clashes with Robert about money. Robert earns fees from articles he contributes to magazines and from royalties on books. He is getting very favourable feed back from his publisher on his latest book, Wretched London, The Story of the City’s Invisible Children and feels optimistic about the future.
The style of the narrative is as if it might be a weekly serial work in Household Words, a journal owned by Charles Dickens. I want to share a bit of the story so you can have a feel for the wonderful style:
"I paused for a long time before I finally dipped my pen into my inkpot and put the nib to paper. I fancied that in my letter to Mrs Clutcher I should appear to be a sorrowful middle-aged man who was very close to his mother and upon her sudden death was thrown into a troubled and regretful grieving from which he could not fully recover."
I don't want to reveal much of the plot, in the tradition of a serial story, every chapter has a new revelation and left me eager to know more. We do learn the Clutchers hold séances in which they claim to put people in contact with deceased loved ones. Robert, accompanied by his friend, goes to a seance. Lloyd's creation of this is just perfect, I felt I was there and I was even a bit scared.
Fifteen years ago my mother passed away, this participated a kind of mental break down in me. I actually began to ponder ways I might get in contact with her. When I discussed this with a cousin I am very close to she asked me how I would do this and I know they were worried. I say this so you can see how I am impacted by the scenes of desperate people seeking contact with the departed while being defrauded by con artists. I can see myself in 1850 going to a seance. The seance is a gem, perfectly done, very dramatic.
The city of London in 1850 is evoked with cinematic vermisitude. You can smell the filth, struggle to breath in the fog and avoid the horse droppings. There are several very interesting minor characters and a trip to Tetty's home town.
The ending is shocking, a perfect close.
The Child Cephalina is tremendous fun, there are a steady stream of revelations and surprises. The characters are very real,
the relationships are complex and interesting. I sense a very high intelligence at work.
I cannot imagine anyone not loving this book.
Author supplied data
"For the most part I write short stories, and while many of them were first published in literary journals, in 2014, I had two collections of my stories published at the same time, Mercy with Tartarus Press, which is a beautifully made hardback book, and The View from Endless Street, a paperback published by WiDo.
Some of my stories could be described as psychological horror and others as magic realism, and from time to time I write about ghostly things. What interests me most is the inventive ways we deal with what life throws at us, and the ability many of us have to slip easily between our invented worlds and the shared world, as if travelling back and forth down a long worn path."
Rebecca Lloyd has experiences that go way beyond the literary. I strongly suggest all read my Q and A session with her.
Here is a sample
THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT REBECCA LLOYD
1. I love moths, and the English names for them; they are poetic and fascinating – Lover’s Knot, Hart and Dart, the moth Uncertain, Mother Shipton, Cream-spot Tiger.
2. I think I would like to go up in an air balloon, but I’m also nervous of heights, and so now I just watch them floating over my house in the summer and wave up to the little people in the baskets, and imagine they can see me and are waving back.
3. My garden is full of toads, frogs and newts, and every night in summertime I go out with a torch and see how many of each I can spot.
4. I’m very bad at wrapping presents; I always make a real mess of it, and have been advised that I should use tissue paper.
5. I think I should swim more because I do love it, but I never seem to be able to fit it into my day.
6. I don’t know if I was a day-dreaming child or not, but I wish that the idea of day-dreaming was thought about more kindly by adults, because in day-dreaming you are using your imagination, and it is a precious thing.
7. When it isn’t cold or windy, or raining, I love to take my bike out and cycle down leafy lanes and along the side of the river.
8. I love clouds and how you can imagine faces and animals and landscapes in them. I’ve watched clouds since I was little, and think I always will.
9. My favourite food is prawns – I could eat them till the seas run dry.
10. In my best dreams, I am flying, sometimes above fields, sometimes high up by the ceilings in vast rooms.
I look forward to following the career of Rebecca Lloyd for many years.