The Raven’s Call
By Sana Pirzada
Book Empire, UK
ISBN: 978-1914584220
226pp.

Nineteenth-century fiction has proven so influential that many postmodernists, such as American-British novelist Charles Palliser, author of The Quincunx, and Dutch writer Michel Faber, whose most famous book is The Crimson Petal and the White, were inspired to write notable postmodern novels set in the Victorian milieu.

After her foray into Gothic fiction with her debut novel The Rose Within, Pakistani author Sana Pirzada has come out with The Raven’s Call — a fairly classic mystery set at the end of the 19th

century, that involves all the tropes of the Gothic genre, such as romance, the supernatural, criminal investigation, secrecy and disturbing family dynamics.

Anyone even remotely familiar with Englishman Wilkie Collins’s sublime novel The Woman in White will immediately perceive the homage Pirzada pays to him. Her villain is also named Percival and the relationship between her main female protagonists — Percival’s wife, Emmeline, and their daughter’s governess, Simone — is sisterly and ostensibly similar to that of Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie.

A sophomore novel combines the best features of Gothic fiction in a manner sure to satisfy those looking for suspense, as well as those who seek some genuine psychological chills

The Raven’s Call commences with hardened Scotland Yard detective David Eldritch being informed that Hugh Percival, master of Griffin Vale House, is missing. Eldritch arrives at the mansion, only to find that the entire household is reluctant to speak with him.

Doggedly persistent as he is in his desire to bring investigations to a successful conclusion, Eldritch manages to discover certain major details, most notably that Hugh Percival is a genuinely nasty piece of work, cruel to his wife and his servants, unprincipled and avaricious.

Traipsing in the snow around the mansion, Eldritch sees a blue iris and a scarred raven. When he makes note of this to the family, everyone appears horrified and Simone almost comes close to having a heart attack.

Apparently the raven’s appearance presages death. Eldritch initially dismisses such stuff as superstitious nonsense but, eventually, he is compelled to change his views after attending a séance with a medium who speaks to him in the voice of his late wife, Fanny. Even his superiors at Scotland Yard claim that, when all else fails, the police have been known to turn to spiritualist mediums in order to gain knowledge that may help solve complex cases.

Although far too many readers often want a perfectly logical explanation for what comes across as a supernatural event in a novel, I am glad Pirzada leaves this element of her text as purely irrational. It is this move that gives her otherwise logically plotted book a truly Gothic flavour.

In a manner more polished than was observed in her debut novel, Pirzada piles on atmospheric details skilfully until mundane things, such as the weather and strains of music, end up pointing to the needs of souls whose earthly issues remain unresolved. She also does an excellent job of developing every single one of her characters to the fullest, be it the ethereally pretty Emmeline, the outwardly nonchalant but inwardly anguished Simone, or the hard-headed and deeply moral David Eldritch.

But what enhances the value of Pirzada’s writing is that even characters who are no longer among the living — such as Emmeline’s neighbour Lucy Hardwicke, who dies in a mysterious fire — are carefully and constructively developed. This is essential to let readers appreciate the links between the world of the living and that of the dead when it comes to Gothic fiction.

Eldritch leaves no stone unturned to discover the fate of Hugh Percival, as well as to determine the truth behind the tragic death of the hapless Lucy. He manages to achieve both aims in a satisfying manner, but it is left to Simone to explain the identity of a mysterious, ghostly female figure who haunts the fields around Griffin Vale.

I do not wish to give away the salient features of Pirzada’s well-constructed plot at this juncture; suffice to say that Simone and Eldritch manage to put the ghost — as well as many reader queries — to appreciable rest.

The author knows her terrain well. She pays meticulous attention to detailing hansom journeys, inquests, London’s seedy areas, priceless artefacts acquired by the colonial Raj in Golconda, dressmakers’ shops and even postal deliveries.

With Simone hailing from an Anglo-Indian background, Pirzada adeptly works in features of the 1857 rebellion too, and sympathetically portrays the lot of poverty-stricken Whitechapel prostitutes in the 19th century, some of whom suffered gruesome horrors at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

As the novel gains in pace and momentum, one encounters unexpected plot twists concerning the fates of Griffin Vale House and Hugh Percival. Things dovetail beautifully and even the supernatural aspects of the story come to a smooth conclusion. This is not to say that there are happy endings all around — the Gothic is a singularly gloomy genre for the most part — but readers experience the satisfaction of finally understanding why certain characters meet the ends they do, while simultaneously applauding Eldritch’s undaunted efforts at criminal investigation.

Barring the occasional grammatical error — of which even the best writers can end up being inadvertently guilty — Pirzada’s prose is engaging, clear and far from convoluted. She has continued to work assiduously at grasping complex elements of the elusive Gothic genre, not simply for her own benefit, but also that of her literary audience.

The Raven’s Call is more than a mystery and a ghost story. It combines the best features of both sub-genres in a manner sure to satisfy those wishing to immerse themselves in suspense, as well as those who seek some genuine psychological chills.

It is far more challenging to engage in authoring such fiction than one might expect. One needs a thorough knowledge of the period as well as the major 19th century Gothic classics in order to do justice to such endeavours.

In her own way, Pirzada appears to have been as determined and persistent as her detective protagonist and hence, just as successful.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 11th, 2023

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