Theatre Of Marvels- Lianne Dillsworth (Hutchinson Heinemann 2022)

This is a debut I’ve been looking forward to and highlighted as one to watch out for in my start of the year post.  I’m feeling pleased with myself as this is the 9th of the 10 of these titles I’ve read and it’s only April!

Lianne Dillsworth has put her MA in Victorian Studies to very good use in this 1840’s London set tale which is the first person narrative of Zillah, a mixed race twenty year old.  Zillah has escaped the poor dwellings of St Giles to become the lover of a Viscount and the headline attraction of Crillick’s  Variety Theatre.  Cast as a “genuine” African native, The Great Amazonia, her tribal dances and staged sacrifices thrill and horrify the audience.  Yet Zillah is a “gaffed freak”, not at all what the theatre is making her out to be and when the secret is blown her time will be up.  An audience member, the distinguished looking Black grocer, Lucius Winter, is dismayed by this duping of the public and Zillah’s role in this and things take a sinister turn when Crillick aims to introduce more authentic exhibits as part of a new disturbing venture.

Zillah is a sparky character who begins to see the error of her ways and passing as someone you are not is a main theme here as well as the notions behind the government plans for resettlement of the London’s Black poor to Sierra Leone.  But this increasingly becomes a tale of rescue and this is done very effectively due to the author’s good story-telling skills.  I liked the Variety Theatre as a central location and the atmosphere of this is well conveyed.  This is an easy read which contains thought-provoking issues, making it a very good Book group choice.  I do feel that keeping Zillah as the narrator throughout makes it seem a little one-note, I think I might have appreciated the odd shift in narrative style as at times it feels a little “reported”.  There were incidents that I would have loved to have been fleshed out, particularly with regards to Zillah’s back story.  This is a strong debut which feels very commercial and should win the author many fans.

Theatre Of Marvels is published in hardback by Hutchinson Heinemann on April 28th 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mr Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (2013)

I’ve had a copy of Bernadine Evaristo’s joint Man Booker winning “Girl, Woman, Other” unread on my shelves for some time now.  I’ve never read her before and felt I needed another book rather than the prizewinner to be my introduction to her and I thought this would fit the bill.  My hesitancy is because I’ve found responses from people I’ve asked about “Girl, Woman, Other” to be a little mixed and some people just don’t seem to get it.  I thought this would offer a more traditional narrative style and would perhaps be stronger on plot which would enable me to really get into Evaristo as a writer.

It has succeeded.  I really enjoyed this and I’m now sure it won’t be long before I read something else by her.  This is a very character-led piece, a tale of a rogue, Antiguan born Barrington Walker who emigrated to London in 1960 in the early days of his marriage to Carmel, but unbeknownst to her he was following his male lover, Morris, with whom he continues a secret relationship until the 2010 setting of the story when they are both in their seventies.

Barrington in his first-person narrative has seen much change and believes that social acceptance of his love for Morris is now more likely but acknowledges that this would not be the case from his church-going wife nor one of his two daughters.  His narrative is clearly structured and very much from his own point of view.  Running alongside this is a second narrative which reflects the thoughts of Carmel, looser in tone, which gradually reveals her responses to her marriage.

I loved the characterisation, I love the way the author gets the characters to play off one another with real authenticity.  I love the relationship between these two men who have found it necessary to hide their love for decades.  I love the vibrancy of Barrington’s narrative even though he is undoubtedly exasperating.

This was Bernardine Evaristo’s second novel which has had a new lease of life following her Man Booker success.  I’ve seen it appearing on recommended lists in recent times although at time of publication it passed me by.  I think it would be an ideal reading group book as the viewpoints of the characters would provide much discussion.  This is a very strong four star read.

Mr Loverman was first published by Penguin in 2013.