Book Review: In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce
I have to walk carefully in the stacks when I'm looking to be scared: I love gothic creepiness and I adore a good ghost story but I can't really tolerate gore or anything that is too realistic. True crime is way too much for me.
In this historical novel imagining the life of 19th century serial killer Belle Gunness, Camilla Bruce manages to make a liar out of me.
In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce
Digital review copy via NetGalley
The key to this novel's almost shameful deliciousness is in Bruce's careful humanizing of Belle Gunness. Born Brynhild in a rural village in Norway, her life is marked by violence, lack of care, and cruelty. One atrocious act causes Brynhild to wrest revenge, and for a moment, I was almost with her.
But as Brynhild becomes Belle, and then Bella, things grow increasingly more grotesque, more suspicious, more terrifying, and it becomes impossible not to see just how terrible this monster is.
The novel alternates between Belle's point of view and that of Nellie, her older sister, and we walk the line between appreciating just how this monster came to be before being reminded of just how very wrong it is to sympathise with the monster. For me, that was the most masterful part of this novel: Bruce manages to make Belle feel realistic while also alien, and we're present for the horror without forgetting the actual victims. Everything is horrifying, but it isn't gross or gruesome. Belle's un-empathetic hunger is what gave me goosebumps while reading.
In the wonderful author's note at the end, Bruce discusses what she invented and what is known; as someone only vaguely familiar with Belle Gunness, I appreciated Bruce's postulations about how things might have happened.
Perfectly creepy, chilling, and impossible to put down.