Catherine Sorgeuil lives with her uncle in Spitalfields, in the East End of London. The year is 1840 and London, overcrowded and unhygienic, is sweltering under a heatwave which trails death and madness in its wake. The events of the novel are narrated by Catherine, partly in a journal-style retelling of episodes and partly through her own pieces of creative writing.
We learn about Catherine’s mysterious past only gradually. The daughter of an upper-class family from Richmond, she was troubled as a child by bad dreams in which she would kill her parents. Events soon took a darker turn, leading to Catherine's permanent separation from her family. She was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, a grim prison from which she was eventually released to live with her uncle in Princes Street – where we find her at the beginning of the novel.
At first, life for Catherine is as normal as possible given the circumstances – hiding her past, she attempts to mix with society, including the daughters of her uncle’s friend, Mr Belle-Smyth. Shy and not suited to society life, however, she spends most of her time in her uncle’s dark, antique-filled house, her only companions her maids Grace and Jane, her uncle and his shadowy friend Mr Trelawney. Catherine’s uncle’s behaviour becomes more and more sinister towards her, and she remembers how as a child she had been forbidden by her father from seeing him, for reasons unknown.
But as Catherine tries to recover from her dark past, London is struck by a series of murders; the perpetrator is sensationalised by the press as ‘The Man of Crows’ for the way he arranges the victims’ dead bodies to look like birds. Brought up to believe she is evil, Catherine develops an obsession with the serial killer and believes they have a connection – she begins to imagine his thoughts as he picks young women off the street and kills them. Several times she walks at night to the crime scenes, morbidly attracted despite the danger she faces.
Death seems to draw closer and closer to Catherine. Lonely and unsafe in the dangerous East End, Catherine spirals into a dark world of lies, secrets and impossible questions. What does her frightening uncle intend for her? Who is the suspicious Mr Trelawney? Can she trust her young suitor, Constantine Janisser? And what really happened in her dismal childhood? The revelations come thick and fast, but even when she flees for her life to Egypt Catherine finds that she is still far from safe.
View a short film of Kate Williams' own summary of the book online.