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.

Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002

The Meaning Of Night- Michael Cox (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Revenge has a long memory”

My first re-read for some time is this historical thriller which was my Book Of The Year back when I read it as a new paperback in 2007. It has sat on my shelves since then and the reason I picked it up for a revisit was although revenge may have a long memory (a dominant theme in the book) I obviously do not as I could remember nothing about it other than I loved it. I wasn’t alone in my admiration as at the time it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award but was beaten by the eventual overall winner Stef Penney for “The Tenderness Of Wolves”.

I can remember feeling that Michael Cox, a writer and academic known for anthologising Victorian short stories was a major new novel writing talent. Sadly, there was only to be one more novel, a sequel “The Glass Of Time” before he succumbed to cancer aged 61 in 2009. His debut was a work in progress for decades before reputedly a prescription for a steroid drug as preparation for treatment for tumours and loss of sight caused a significant burst of energy which resulted in him beginning to put this work together and saw him bring it and the sequel to completion following his temporarily successful treatment. This moving sequence of events of a writer driven to finish his magnum opus seems fitting for this large, intense, dark novel and this truly is a testament to the talents of Michael Cox.

The author’s feel for the Victorian period is evident throughout and it has real authenticity with strong elements of Wilkie Collins and Dickens making it a rich but in no way a quick read. It begins with a random murder carried out on the streets of London in 1854 by the narrator Edward Glyver whose confession we are reading. The reasons for this, the events leading up to and following this crime form the whole narrative. It is a tale of revenge and betrayal with the central location the country estate of Evenwood and the family who live here. The usual suspects of opium, prostitution, class and hypocrisy are all present but none of it feels any way cliched. This is because the author has really assimilated the period and obviously knows so much about it, garnered from years of research and this permeates the text in a natural and convincing way, particularly in the field of book collecting. An “editor’s” footnotes to the text gives the fiction a further air of authenticity as do other documents pertaining to the events in much the same way as Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” (2015).

I will admit there were times when I felt I was ploughing through this somewhat (as indeed I have done with many Victorian novels that I have ended up loving) and throughout I was concerned about how little I had remembered from last time round but like many of the novels from the period it emulates it did pull me right in and any effort in the reading was rewarded. On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.

I haven’t read the sequel from 2008 (this was so far under the radar that I didn’t even know it existed until researching for this but given the circumstances of the author’s health issues at the time this is not surprising) but have just ordered it hopefully to read while this novel is still fresh in my mind and I will not be parting with my (now quite well worn) paperback copy of “The Meaning Of Night” anytime soon.
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The Meaning of Night was published in 2006. I read the 2007 John Murray paperback edition.

The Palace Of Curiosities – Rosie Garland (2013)

 

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A new author for me, this was recommended by my friend Tanith, who appreciates the weird and wonderful in literature and with its on-cover comment from Sarah Waters and comparisons to Angela Carter this was a very appropriate book choice for me.

This debut passed me by in 2013 and Rosie Garland has produced two more critically acclaimed novels since. I was very much hoping for something along the lines of Waters and Carter both of whom have produced novels I have really loved, with maybe a touch of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” thrown in. I was a little concerned it may be reminiscent of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus”, a novel I did not really warm to and was disappointed by. I needn’t have worried.

Set in Victorian London it follows the narrative of two characters, Eve, whose heavy body hair has led her towards the freak show where she is billed as “The Lion Faced Girl” and Abel, a man plagued with memory problems which leaves the past a mystery to him and the ability to heal himself, which may suggest immortality. Both are outsiders unable to function normally in society because of their differences and end up as participants in Josiah Arroner’s Palace Of Curiosities. They are drawn to one another yet there is so much keeping them apart.

I did take a little while to be drawn into this novel and it was initially Abel’s account which got me the most interested. Working as a slaughter-man and living with a group of other men in a cellar, his predicament of struggling with the even recent past I found fascinating but once he and Eve, together with a few other memorable characters found their way to the exploitational Arroner I became fully involved.

The author would be good at horror writing as she is able to gradually notch up the oddness allowing things to turn very dark for a while. This was done with subtlety and was very effective. She does relieve the pressure in the last sections of the novel to bring matters to a desirable conclusion.

This is a very solid debut. It didn’t grip me as much as the very best of Sarah Waters, Angela Carter nor even Laura Carlin whose 2018 Gothic debut “The Wicked Cometh” was such a delight but I will certainly seek out this author’s other titles and feel that I have found another voice which should continue to bring me much pleasure in her subsequent novels.

fourstars

The Palace Of Curiosities was published by Harper Collins in 2013.

The Five- Hallie Rubenhold (2019) – A Real Life Review

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I like this author.  A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011.  I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.

 “The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”.  From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented.  They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise.  They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate.  Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.

 Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888. 

 The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape.  This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope.  And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

 The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life.  The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another.  The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence.  Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do.  This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion.  I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.

The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section.  I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging.  But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.

fourstars

 

The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019.  It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.