Sarai Walker’s The Cherry Robbers (Harper 2022) is a slow burn of a classic Gothic ghost story that just misses the mark. I wanted to love it, and there are some fantastically crafted sections, but the overall feeling I was left with was “meh.” That is due in large part to the lackluster and unsatisfactory ending and the wicked slow beginning. Gothics have a slower pace, but the beginning of this novel is just painfully slow.
I don’t like the title. I’ve read the D.H. Lawrence poem Walker is referring to and there is so much unrealized potential. We get there somewhat with cherry blossoms and a young sex scene and in a shade of lipstick, as well is in the female ghosts and there is, of course, the virginity of the girls that is a huge plot point, but… I don’t know. I think I’d like to have seen more with the birds. Belinda’s stuffed wren could very well have been a throstle or song thrush. There are three dead birds in the poem and five dead sisters in the book. A title could have been pulled from the works of Tennyson, a poet used throughout the book, or from “The Goblin Market,” which is also referenced and would have been perfect with its emphasis on sexuality and the leap between girlhood to womanhood. The title is catchy, but it doesn’t work with the text.
I expected so much from the plot, and I know me well enough to know that’s why I’m disappointed. Iris Chapel is one of the six Chapel heiresses to the Chapel firearms fortune. The family’s fortune comes from blood money, from the firearms that took many a life. Iris’s mother, Belinda, with her own traumatic past, is forced to marry or be homeless. Luck of the draw, she ends up marrying into the Chapel family and moving into the huge “wedding cake” of a Victorian home that becomes her cage. Belinda’s husband repeatedly insists that she fulfill her wifely duties, and she gives birth to six daughters, losing a bit of herself each time he touches her and dying a little with each pregnancy. Belinda’s own mother died giving birth to her, and that trauma serves as a bridge connecting Belinda to the spirit world. Those who died by Chapel firearms haunt her. I wish her story had been more prominent.
Belinda has a premonition that something horrible will happen to Aster if she marries. Iris is the only one who believes her, and young Iris tries to delay the wedding by destroying wedding favors and wedding gifts. The day after her wedding, Aster dies a horrific death after returning to the wedding cake Chapel home. “The Chapel sisters: first they get married then they get buried.” After Aster, comes Rosalind. Then Calla. Then Daphne, whose death is just a bit different. Iris and Zelie try to outrun the curse, but Zelie falls in love with a man. Then there’s just Iris, trying to outrun a ghost and the family curse.
Best scene: The sisters watching their father dig Aster’s grave.
Worst: When Walker writes “blood splatter” instead of “blood spatter.” It would have been a great sentence if she’d used spatter. (It’s nitpicking, I know.) It actually would make a great title for a different non-gothic book – Blood Spatter and Pastry.
Do I recommend it? Meh.