Drawing us in from the opening pages, McOmber examines the peculiar morality of love and death that rises up from the murk of Victorian London. This is a fascinating tale
rife with subtlety and passion, and McOmber captures the minds of both men and women while
particularly exposing the vulnerability of women in the Victorian era. He
reveals the characters in The White Forest in slow detail;
they become increasingly colorful as the novel progresses.
Our cipher to the suspense is first-person narrator Jane Silverlake, who demonstrates a rare ability to see the souls in material objects around her. Ensconced with her emotionally distant father in the decrepit gothic manor house of Stoke Morrow in an isolated part of Hampstead Heath, Jane’s naïve heart cannot sustain the loyalty she demands of herself and of her dearest friends, Maddy Lee and
willowy, aristocratic Nathan Ashe.
Jane’s London is a masterpiece of soot and chamber pots, rats and cobblestones.
The air is full of dust and the pungent smell of dense humanity at the height of the
Industrial Revolution with all of its glories and pitfalls. Playing out amid rank shadows in the human warrens underneath Blackfriars
Bridge, the story begins just after the Crimean War and the disappearance of
enigmatic Nathan. Maddy is of the opinion that Jane "ruined" Nathan because of her love; Jane feels responsible, thinking that she
has infected her friend with her “so-called disease.”
Jane remembers younger days, when their elegant friendship was not yet fettered by petty jealousies and thoughts of “unnatural forces.” Jane, however, is no longer the lonesome girl lurking in the shadows. As she recalls the restorative walks on the Heath and the discussions in her father’s garden, a sort of grotto resembling the baths of Emperor Diocletian and the broken gods of Rome, she has visions of the red-hooded “Lady of the Flowers” who blooms in the darkness, silent and waiting. She also dreams of a white forest inhabited by strange creatures, perhaps an "unseen force" concealed within the Stoke Morrow.
When unconventional Maddy joins Jane in the hunt for Nathan, the rooms around Jane suddenly come alive, the surfaces of objects nothing more than “a fragile veneer.” Determined to unravel the many pieces of the puzzle,
the girls plunge themselves into the subterranean world of Ariston Day, a charismatic monster who travels the land spouting half-formed theories about a return to an “original paradise.” As the Machiavellian Day sends out his shiny, black-eyed minions--the cruel, unsavory “fetches”--to cause terror on streets of London, it soon becomes clear there will be redemption
neither for Nathan nor for Jane through later generosity or suffering. While Jane’s point of view is our key to unlocking the mystery, her ruminations on the fate of Nathan spark the tension in what rapidly becomes a psychological suspense tale of spectral intentions.
From scenes on the Thames, awash with gaslight and silvery fog, to the freshly mortared avenues of Highgate
Cemetery, to the spectacular, turreted glassed Crystal Palace (a showpiece for the stunning achievements of Victoria’s Empire), the story's setting becomes almost surrealistic, leaving many factors open to speculation and debate. Adorning his tale with great psychological depth and emotional tension, McOmber posits a prismatic study of Victorian spiritualism, connecting the subterranean recesses of the human mind to the more sinister elements of the supernatural. There’s a sense of time lost as McOmber embellishes his story with a gripping sheen of uncertainty.
The book ends with twists that are despicable and sad but not unexpected: Jane's becoming embroiled in a netherworld of saints, Maddy’s betrayals, and London's "great illumination." Unfolding his story in unflinching detail, McOmber reminds us that civilization is merely a veneer, and that the twisted, evil cravings of the malevolent and bad can
be all too easily attained.