Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman: book review

I’ve recently learned that there’s a single sentence which, when used, compels me to read a book better than any other sales pitch, incantation or bribe ever could: ‘This plot has a twist we beg you not to disclose . . .’ Hello? I thought. I suspect this only appears on advance copies to warn off spoilsport reviewers – but seriously – they should consider using it on the book blurb when it’s published too.

No spoilers here, I assure you. Beatrice Hitchman’s secret is safe with me.

Petite Mort is set in the silent film industry of early twentieth century Paris, and is told from the point of view of Adèle, an aspiring actress. She escapes her drear and parochial village to pursue her dream, only to find herself sharing digs with a prostitute, and scraping together a living as a seamstress in the Pathé studio costume department. Adèle is tormented by the opulence of garments she makes and cannot wear. However, her fortunes appear to change when she catches the eye of André, an influential producer: what he offers, instead of a starring role, is a job as his wife’s personal assistant.

The title alone gives the reader a suggestion of what could be in store, like a lady’s ankle on display in a salon. Added to the mix is the mystery of a film lost in a factory fire; the peculiar personal habits of Terpsichore, Pathé’s leading lady; and an infamous murder case. In fact there are several rather tasty twists in this novel, more than enough to keep you guessing until the end.

It’s difficult to tease out comparisons with other books, or movies for that matter, because Hitchman is leading us into relatively unexplored territory. At different times I was reminded of Moulin Rouge, The Prestige and (with my admittedly limited knowledge of silent film history) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Like the silver screen world Hitchman portrays, her writing shimmers, drawing you in with glamour and trickery. A fascinating, beguiling and wily debut. What will she do next?

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

Published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail, March 2013

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