Immortelle found me, once again, under author Catherine McCarthy’s literary spell. Set in the Nineteenth Century, Immortelle follows the story of a mother, Elinor, and daughter, Rowena. Elinor, a pottery artist, feels disconnect from her daughter as of late, and blames the disconnect on the inevitable dysfunction which comes with her twelve-year-old daughter’s blooming adolescence. Rowena, however, harbors a dark secret, one that only comes to light after multiple deaths. Elinor feels there is more to their disconnect, her motherly instinct sounding alarm, but is unable to learn of it before Rowena’s suspicious death. In her grief, Elinor decides to craft Rowena an immortelle, a Welsh grave decoration crafted using flowers and ceramics, often vibrant and colorful, the components of which are symbolic of the deceased’s life. All of this is arranged into a story-like way and then sealed beneath a glass dome to protect it against the elements and, effectively, becoming immortal, thus the name, immortelle. The crafting and ultimate beauty of Rowena’s immortelle draws public interest, and soon Elinor is crafting immortelles for people of her small, sea-side Welsh town and beyond. All the while, Elinor is haunted by far more than the consuming grief of losing her daughter.
McCarthy is a master of quiet horror, utilizing the subtle to horrify readers rather than grotesque detail, and to great effect—moments of the novella had my skin positively crawling as McCarthy twists the literary knife that had silently slipped between my ribs. The ghosts in this tale are people, with personalities and emotion despite their ethereal place beyond the grave, yet the masterful writing McCarthy so deftly uses makes them horrific and melancholy. Indeed, reading the prose of Immortelle is reminiscent of reading Ray Bradbury’s writing, as the language itself is simultaneously alive with descriptive, poetic prose yet is tight and clean, moving at a brisk pace that contradictorily lingers in the mind after reading. I found myself rereading sentences and even entire pages at times, simply because the writing was exquisite—I think this novella may have more highlighted passages than some of the stories from the literary masters of my college textbooks. Two examples, both from the perspective of Elinor:
“She slides from the workshop to the floor, a weightless sparrow, and I realize I have achieved very little this evening. Now she knows about the ghost of my mother, but I am no closer to unraveling her worries. Before I can turn down the lamps, she disappears, like some dark-haired pwca, and I am left to trace her footprints in the frost.” And; “The afternoon had seen the end of the downpour and the sky blushed pink, embarrassed by her outburst.”
The sheer vividness of McCarthy’s prose as she weaves the tale is pure art, such as the immortelles Elinor so painstakingly crafts, and McCarthy does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls of purple prose. Horror is conjured via setting and suggestion, emotion distilled and evoked from the very beating hearts of the characters. As a parent, it was all too easy to imagine my own child in Rowena’s place, to appropriate Elinor’s grief as my own. Before long, McCarthy had drawn tears, her literary knife plunged deeper still, accompanied by a sweet and comforting song. As with the art of immortelles, McCarthy takes care to include plenty of Welsh culture and language into her tale, often interweaving traditional Welsh language into the English prose, giving an extra layer of depth. A glossary of terms is included in the front of the book, and it is recommended that readers either commit them to memory or bookmark said page, though I stress that the use of Welsh is in no way a hindrance, as the meaning is easily inferred when unknown, and an additional layer of decadence when memorized.
Immortelle is a small-town ghost story of grief and deceit, where Elinor’s maternal instinct prods her to uncover the truth of Rowena’s death and see her avenged in a deliciously horrific way. The use of language and the detailed description of pottery technique and traditional symbolic meanings of the flowers and other components of the immortelles give this story a satisfying profundity, one which, when augmented by the powerful emotion and quiet horror, will remain in my mind for years to come. I am but an hour post-read, and yet I long to revisit Immortelle, this time in paperback, on some dark and lonesome night as a storm rages outside the window.
Ultimately, Immortelle is an excellent, heart-wrenching tale, full of art and emotion and ghosts. Catherine McCarthy is at her strongest, here, and if you’ve never read her work, I implore you to make this your start.
I’m an author. I’ve loved literature since I was a child, and my life has revolved around stories, whether they be books, film, comics, or otherwise. I’ve always gravitated toward them, found comfort in the language, the characters, the impossible worlds conjured by authors and brought forth onto the page. It was no surprise when I discovered that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.