Nominated for the 2016 Forest of Reading Evergreen Award
Nominated for the 2014 Victoria Book Prize
An Englishwoman’s mysterious death in 19th-century West Africa haunts those left behind.
Letitia Landon, "Letty" to her friends, is an intelligent, witty, successful writer, much sought after for dinner parties and soirées in the London of the 1830s. But, still single at thirty-six, she fears ending up as a wizened crone in a dilapidated country cottage, a cat her only companion.
Just as she is beginning to believe she will never marry, she meets George Maclean, home on leave from his position as the governor of Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast of West Africa. George and Letty marry quietly and set sail for Cape Coast. Eight weeks later she is dead — not from malaria or dysentery or any of the multitude of dangers in her new home, but by her own hand. Or so it would seem.
Local Customs examines, in poetic detail, a way of life that has faded into history. It was a time when religious and cultural assimilation in the British colonies gave rise to a new, strange social order. Letty speaks from beyond the grave to let the reader see the world through her eyes and explore the mystery of her death. Was she disturbed enough to kill herself, or was someone — or something — else involved?
Audrey Thomas has published seventeen previous novels and short story collections. Her novels Intertidal Life and Coming Down from Wa were nominated for Governor General's Literary Awards and won B.C.'s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. In 2003, she won the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. Audrey lives on Galiano Island, B.C.
The nightly disturbances outside Letty's door are so hair-raising, they bring to mind Shirley Jackson's ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House. There is no question that such a setting as Gold Coast castle would be haunted, given its abominable history. Audrey Thomas is adept, as always, in depicting the influences - the local customs- of the era, both in Western Africa and in England.
A gripping tale about the role of colonial presumption and misadventure in the demise of the English poetess Letty Landon only eight weeks after her arrival, as the new bride of its white governor, on the slavery-haunted Gold Coast of Africa.
The ambiguity of the novel only contributes to the haunting, dreamlike feel of this stunning book from one of Canada’s great, too-little-lauded literary figures.
[Audrey Thomas’s] plot is clever, and with close attention to detail, she spins a narrative both nuanced and suspenseful, a skillful slice of good storytelling.
A beguiling and assured tale that’s nimbly told.
An assured stylist whose elegant turns of phrase and convincing incorporation of period details are put to good use here, Thomas vividly portrays Letty in her London element, where the scenes depicting her lukewarm courtship with George are wonderfully cringe-making.
In this fascinating book, Thomas’s best, we find a complex portrait of a highly interesting woman whose better –and worse-qualities destroy her.
Among the many voices that narrate the novel, Letty speaks from the grave to the reader, a chilling effect that brings historical Africa into perspective.
The castle and those who once passed through it give Local Customs an almost gothic flavour, appropriate considering how Georgians and Victorians devoured such stories. Thomas has stripped away the flowery accoutrements of these 18th- and early 19th-century novels, but not the details that give a novel and its characters life, or the pacing that underlies the mystery.
The first line of Local Customs, enticing and chilling, floats on its own page between the dedication and prologue. Audrey Thomas casts a spell with, “Letty: I can speak freely now that I am dead.”
In this captivating account of the life --and mysterious death-- of an early 19th c. English poet, Audrey Thomas re-imagines a moment of historical change in West Africa with insight and uncanny verisimilitude.
Audrey Callahan Thomas's specialty is not a region but a gender. She is intensely, assertively feminine...Mrs. Thomas's perceptions...are brillant
A fascinating novel.
The author's writing is stylistically brilliant.
The dramatic death of L.E.L in an exotic and remote place – seemingly by her own hand with prussic acid – became a cause célèbre in its day, and various theories have been expounded on it ever since. The novel’s ending is not overt but gives enough clues as to who, or what, might have been responsible, and it may inspire readers to research the real story for themselves. Recommended for its mystery and fascinating historical setting.
Audrey Thomas is not a romantic, nor is she a narrow satirist of false sophistication. She is a realist and a terrible comedian who exposes her characters in a light like 'like the intense glare of the sun against the white walls of the houses'.
Local Customs is a story with a mystery at its core, but also an examination of the systemic subjugation of individuals for reasons of gender or race. In one sense, this is the story of a colonial governor and his lady – a woman who was believed to have been either murdered or died by her own hand. In Thomas’s hands it gains resonance and becomes the story of a not uncomplicated life and a woman capable of leaving it without regrets.
Thomas constructs a romantic, sometimes comic adventure spiced up with vivid images, tropical redolence, and the lurking spectre of violence. The period ambiance and conversational rhythms are deftly captured. Thomas is especially good on the solitudes of Victorian marriage.
Thomas has a faultless ear for dialogue, for how people sound... And she has a camera eye for physical detail. Margaret Atwood