TheAraboftheFuture3.jpg

The third part of Sattouf's graphic memoir begins when Riad is seven years old and living in a small village in Syria. While reading Parts 1 & 2 in this series, I've grown increasingly distressed about the uncomfortable position his mother's been cornered into living in a crumbling home with two small children far from her native France and in a culture very different from her own. Added to this is the father’s increasing stubbornness, reactionary views and snobbishness. It’s not surprising to find his parents locked into a battle which grows increasingly hostile as further developments are revealed over the course of this book. One of the most alarming changes in the book is Riad’s own domineering attitude directed at his younger brother Yahya. It shows how the violence he witnesses and (at times) experiences is shaping his character in a disturbing way. However, as with the previous books, these darker issues are presented in a way that allow you to feel the comic absurdity of the characters’ egotism and insecurities. It’s heartening to see as the series progresses that Riad isn’t a saint either. Nevertheless, I deeply feel for the precariousness of his position as a child in difficult circumstances who feels caught between Eastern and Western cultures.

It’s interesting how Riad’s role models have changed throughout the series. Where he first saw Georges Brassens as a God-like figure under his mother’s influence in Part 1, Riad is now drawn to Conan the Barbarian. It inspires him to the point of reproducing scenes from the film in drawings of his own and it’s poignant to see glimpses of the author’s artistic talent at its inception. The boy also is starting to test out different belief systems under his own initiative. Although he’s not asked to, he chooses to participate in Ramadan (albeit very briefly.) More subtly, there are dynamic conflicts portrayed in his parents’ lives. His father prides himself on establishing connections with an influential figure but it’s evident that he’s only being used for a specific purpose. The father also shows signs that he feels oppressed by his own past as he violently and spontaneously bursts out in anger against his own elderly mother at one point shouting “You ruined my life you stupid ignorant peasant!” It dismaying how his own evident conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures are being similarly imparted on his son.

TheAraboftheFuture3_image.jpg

Like in the previous books, the children Riad encounters frighteningly mimic the attitudes and prejudices of the adults. Riad’s cousins tease him for being Jewish when they notice he’s uncircumcised which betrays their fundamental misunderstanding about the way the religion is practiced and how their prejudice is truly rooted in pure naivety. This unfortunately leads to one of the most disturbing scenes in this volume when Riad’s father decides to “correct” his son’s physically to fit with the other boys in Syria. The author has a special talent for portraying some truly squeamish imagery. But casual violence isn’t limited to instances in Syria because when Riad returns to France for a brief period there is also a disturbing scene involving kittens. But, no less unsettling, is the portrayal of the erosive effect of living in stultifying circumstances for a long period of time. This affects Riad’s mother the worst. Her desultory days are spent piecing together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of a scene from her family’s French port town as if meditating on the heritage and counter life she’s lost. It’s a welcome relief when she makes a fleeting connection with Riad’s aunt Khadija who shows herself to be both an ally and someone with innate hidden intelligence.

I find it touching how imagery of the toy bull which first made an appearance at the start of the series still continues to haunt Riad. This menacing beast continues to plague him in vividly depicted nightmares but, as Riad adopts figures who inspire him to establish his own individuality separate from the values of his parents and society, we can see him finding tools to combat his inner demons/fears. My concerns for Riad and other characters in the book haven’t been allayed by the developments in this volume (in fact, they’ve been heightened by the suspenseful ending to volume 3!) But it’s made me all the more curious to see how the series will continue. I was delighted to discover recently that a fourth volume has been published in French, but it hasn’t been translated yet. I eagerly await to discover what happens next in this cleverly wrought graphic memoir!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf
sealwomans.jpg

There’s something so wonderful about being wholly drawn into a richly imagined historical novel that both illuminates a somewhat forgotten or not-widely-known period of history and gives voice to people who are only glancingly referred to in the history books. Sally Magnusson does all this in her debut novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which recounts the abduction of over four hundred Icelandic citizens from their homes in the year 1627 by pirates from Morocco and Algeria. These prisoners were sold into slavery and a ransom for their release wasn’t obtained until several years later – by which point many of those abducted had either died, been irretrievably lost or converted/integrated into life along the Barbary Coast. Copies still exist of a famous account of these abductions written by a Reverend who was captured himself, but Magnusson focuses her novel more on the journey and inner-struggles of his wife Ásta. It’s noted how “others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?” In doing so, this novel brilliantly engages with many of the heartrending conflicts a woman in Ásta’s position must have faced while also powerfully illuminating the cultural importance of storytelling and the complicated dynamics of love.

A number of years ago I visited Iceland and took a road trip around the country. It’s such a bizarre alien-like landscape with its flat volcanic-soil and coastal shores dotted with black & white puffins and their colourful beaks. I admired how the stark beauty and bleakness of this striking environment is powerfully evoked in this novel. But the author also brings to life the culture and daily life of its people from the production of Skyr (a yogurt-like foodstuff traditionally made from sheep’s milk) to the use of puffin bones to keep the kitchen fires going or the frequent retelling of Icelandic Sagas which are such a rich part of the country’s oral tradition. I also got such a strong sense of how the country basically operates as one small hardworking community. As Magnusson notes, it’s easy to empathize with how the kidnapping of over 400 citizens back in the 1600s would deeply traumatize the entirety of this sparsely-populated country. The story also conveys what an enormous culture shock it’d be for these very isolated Christian people who were abducted to suddenly be engulfed in the brightly-coloured multi-national predominantly-Muslim community of Algiers.

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychological implications of a diaspora, especially when people are forcibly removed from their native homeland or are forced to leave because of severe problems in their birth country. The real heart of this novel lies in Ásta’s dilemma as she’s suddenly left on her own in Algiers with a daughter and an infant son. Her rambunctious husband Ólafur is swiftly used as a negotiator between the Ottoman Empire that was seeking ransom for these slaves and the king of Denmark (because Iceland was under Danish rule). Throughout the many years of their separation Ásta is torn between maintaining her faith in their rescue and building a new life in this foreign land. This includes conflicted feelings about religion, loyalty to family and maintaining her own sense of cultural identity. There comes a point when the workings of time create a certain psychological distance from her homeland. Her existence beforehand becomes idealized and nostalgia takes on a life of its own: “memory is like that, always so eager to aid you in missing what you can no longer have and forgetting the rest.” Magnusson writes poignantly about how story-telling is a means of psychological escape from the horrors of reality as well as a way of maintaining a connection with one’s own culture and personal genealogical history.

Barbary corsairs

Barbary corsairs

The author also weaves into her story two somewhat fantastical elements and characters who tread the border between myth and reality. One is an eccentric old woman who has visions and believes herself to be a seal that has lost its skin and is consequently stranded on land in the shape of a woman. Another is an elf from the legends Ásta heard in her youth. At first I thought this later character was merely an eccentric quirk within the story or simply a fanciful notion within Ásta’s imagination, but his inclusion comes to powerfully represent her character’s inner conflict, her stymied desires and a representation of her own “otherness” as someone that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere. These characters also show the way that our daily lives are composed of both the hard fact of reality and our subjective experience of the world.

As I neared the end of reading this tale it became something much more for me than simply a vividly-imagined historical novel, but a personally touching meditation on the choices we’re forced to make in life. Over the years we’re inevitably presented with crossroads where we must choose to take one path or another and it’s difficult not to be consumed with grief for the potential joys we’ve had to sacrifice in making these hard decisions. But Magnusson writes how “we cannot live in two worlds. And in lamenting too long what belongs in the other we bring upon ourselves and others only destruction.” In dramatically bringing to life Ásta’s story she sympathetically presents a fully rounded understanding of this turmoil and the importance of fostering the lives we’ve chosen. “The Sealwoman’s Gift” also powerfully shows the numerous and complicated repercussions of how the evil industry of slavery caused rifts in communities which have never been and can never be repaired. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Magnusson
6 CommentsPost a comment
Beginning.JPG

I’ve been a fan of watching Jen Campbell’s histories of fairy tales on her YouTube channel for some time. She gives fascinating descriptions of the dark content and themes of these stories which have been passed down through generations and illuminates how the original tale is often far different from a Disney interpretation. So I was incredibly eager to read this series of original modern-day fairy tales she’s written in her first collection of short fiction “The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night”. These are stories about fantastical situations such as purchasing hearts online, capturing ghosts to sell on the black market, a hotel where the guests sleep in coffins and a far away planet that acts as a time capsule. These distorted versions of the world often inventively shed new light on our emotional reality by ruminating on conditions such as love, jealousy, greed and the origin of existence. It makes this book such a richly rewarding and pleasurable reading experience.

Integral to these tales is the compulsion for storytelling itself. Characters read about stories, tell each other stories or make up stories themselves. Some are riffs on established fairy tales, bible tales or mythology that poignantly comment on the central thread of story. So a story about teenage pregnancy recounts a version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ that creates a powerful connection to ideas about food and nourishment. Another story incorporates aspects of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to comment upon a lost friend and a sense of freedom. Others invent whole new kinds of tall tales to bring chaotic emotions and unwieldy feelings into some sort of order. These beautifully show the way classic stories can be incorporated into and made relevant to our everyday life and how we can write ourselves into the myths we inherit. Campbell also often incorporates snippets of oddball history like the ritualized consumption of hearts or unusual natural science like an icefish with transparent blood. The real and unreal mingle on the page to show the complex way in which we perceive, interpret and make sense of the world around us.

IMG_0313_Facetune_01.11.2017-162831.jpg

The visual arts also provide another portal of understanding for some characters. The endearing story ‘Jacob’ is composed in the form of a letter a boy writes to a weather woman looking for special insight and he recounts a trip to a museum where he was overwhelmed by a painting that depicts when God flooded the earth. The deeply moving story 'Margaret and mary and the end of the world' describes how a pregnant girl goes to view Dante Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini and meditates on the condition of womanhood. In that painting the angel Gabriel is strikingly depicted as having his feet on fire and the artist modelled the ambivalent figure of Mary on his own sister, the writer Christina Rossetti whose extended poem ‘Goblin Market’ is such a wondrous joy.

Quite often when artwork is depicted in novels I feel a compulsion to actually go view that piece of art as I did reading Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both” and Neil Hegarty’s “Inch Levels”. So I felt the same in this instance wanting to see Rossetti’s painting in person. I took the bus to Trafalgar Square to see it at the National Gallery (since it’s currently on loan there from the Tate). Something quite randomly wonderful happened on my journey where I was listening to Rebekah Del Rio’s song ‘No Stars’ on a loop. This track has been frequently drifting through my mind since I saw it performed in Twin Peaks The Return. While listening to this I read Campbell’s title story ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ about a couple speculating on both the creation of the universe and the start of their relationship at 3AM. When Evelyn asserts that in the beginning there was nothing but stars Julian critiques her by replying that stars aren’t nothing. Evelyn corrects herself saying there were no stars. This fit so perfectly with my listening not only in the repetition of there being “no stars”, but in the way both the song and story solemnly consider the meaning of a relationship. It was a fun little coincidence. 

The imaginative exuberance of this collection makes it such an enjoyable and stunningly fascinating book. Some of the stories like ‘Animals’ or ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ revel in gothic delights and build plots of dramatic tension. Others such as ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster.’ and ‘Human Satellites’ more abstractly provoke you to consider new ideas and perspectives. Then others make arresting points about the nature of war or the stigma surrounding deformity while immersing the reader in a trip to a gay pride celebration in Brighton or a tour around an aquarium. Jen Campbell’s writing sits snugly alongside such excitingly inventive modern short story writers such as Kirsty Logan, Jackie Kay, Daisy Johnson or Ali Smith.

I can’t remember reading a thriller that is as eerily intense as Elena Varvello’s “Can You Hear Me?” This novel is partly a coming-of-age story and partly a mystery. It’s narrated by Elia who recalls the summer of 1978 when he was sixteen and living in a rural Italian town with his parents. His father Ettore Furenti was disconsolate and paranoid after being laid off from his job. The entire town was suffering from economic depression after the local cotton mill closed down, but Ettore’s behaviour became especially erratic as he spun conspiracy theories and disappeared from home for mysterious periods of time. At the same time, a local boy recently went missing and was later found murdered. The narrative alternates between Elia’s memories of that summer and a girl that Ettore has picked up in his car to drive to a remote location. Together these create a chilling account of an abduction and a boy desperately trying to come to terms with his dangerously unhinged father.

While this novel is obviously far removed from my own circumstances, the style and subject of Varvello’s story invoked a deep sense of nostalgia in me. Elia is a somewhat awkward young man who makes a loose friendship with a boy named Stefano. Their friendship develops organically. They don’t necessarily have a huge amount of shared interests but are pulled together more because of circumstances when there is no one else to spend time with. A lot of childhood friendships seem to be formed in this way and the only other book I can recall that got this so well is Tim Winton’s novel “Breath”. During their summer together they spend time swimming at a remote water hole. I have strong memories of doing something similar and the representation of this uneven friendship felt very real. But their companionship becomes complicated when Elia realizes he’s increasingly attracted to Stefano’s mother Anna. This gets even more emotionally complex when Elia realizes that his librarian mother Marta used to know Anna and scorns her.

While Elia tries to deal with these normal issues surrounding any young man’s development, he also grows increasingly wary of his father who believes that he’s been cheated out of a job and becomes increasingly absent from the home. Marta seems to bury her head in the sand about her husband Ettore’s behaviour and withdraw into herself. So this boy is mostly left to struggle with all of this on his own. Because of this, the story develops an increasing level of emotional poignancy as it goes on at the same time as it grows more unsettlingly tense. Varvello’s captivating writing style drew me in and had me gripped in that way that made me really resent having to stop reading it at the end of my commutes or lunch breaks. It’s a powerful book that reminds me of some of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels in the way that Varvello so effectively builds suspense amidst a plot involving friendship and embittered economical hardships. And (coming from me) you know that means I think very highly of it!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElena Varvello
4 CommentsPost a comment

The books in the graphic memoir series “The Arab of the Future” make me feel like a child about to read the new Harry Potter or see the new Star Wars film. I look forward to them with so much anticipation and read each new volume immediately. The second volume is published in the UK this week! These books are such a joy to read for their lively and expressive drawings and engaging stories that present the author's wide-eyed innocent look at his cross-national childhood. In this volume his family move back to Syria (the place of his father's birth) when Riad is six years old. He goes to school for the first time learning Arabic from his tyrannical teacher and French from his mother at home. Meanwhile his professor father claims he'll build his wife and children a palatial home on a desolate plot of land they own, but as the time ticks by no progress is made. Sattouf presents his family and experiences with wit, humour, intelligence and great emotion.

This volume continues to give a fascinating view of what it was like growing up in a country under what's effectively a military dictatorship that is in perpetual conflict with the Israelis. Leader Hafez al-Assad holds elections but he's the only candidate on the ballot and the population is cowed into voting yes for him – in a memorable scene Riad's teacher orders her students to tell their parents to vote for their leader. What's particularly chilling about the teacher is the way he draws her so sweetly smiling one moment and horrendously enraged the next. She punishes them severely hitting the palms of the children's hands with a stick whenever they fail to comply to arbitrary rules such as wearing the correct uniform or bringing in a regulation size Quran. It's particularly cruel when she beats poor unclean boys who don't have the facilities to wash properly. Yet, Sattouf shows this woman's humanity as well in a scene where they children are ordered to imitate the sound of rain by tapping their fingers and she bursts into tears which gives an indication of her untold personal sorrows.

Meanwhile, on the playground the children parrot the nationalistic/religious dogma learned from their families and government while playing games where the objective is to kill all their Jewish enemies. In a way, the children portrayed are more terrifying than the adults as some look upon Riad with icy hard hatred for no apparent reason. This is especially frightening when his parents visit friends or relatives whose own children look pleasant when they are with the adults but turn mercilessly sadistic when left alone with Riad. Sattouf draws these scenes so well where you can see the hatred brewing within the characters’ faces as they stare at Riad as a boy. With his long blonde hair he stands out amongst the children who call him Jewish as an insult (even though his family is not).

Alongside the flagrant anti-Semitism expressed by people around him, there are horrific examples of misogyny from many characters. This is found in every day life where visits to family or friends entail the women preparing food which is only eaten by them after the men have finished or in offhanded remarks from Riad’s father and friends who claim women are stupid or difficult. Even more horrendously, Riad overhears his father describe how a woman is killed because she became pregnant outside of marriage. Shockingly, he expresses uncertainty to Riad’s mother about whether it should be reported.

This ambivalence exemplifies an ongoing internal conflict with Riad’s father which has been evident since the first book. He’s a man eager for progress, yet he capitulates to the dominant repressive ideologies around him. Over the course of these two books, I’ve come to feel very involved and concerned about what will happen to Riad’s father and mother. I’m amazed his mother puts up with the father’s attitudes, treatment of her and the difficult conditions she’s forced to live under. Of course, his father has a very tender side too. In some scenes he demonstrates how he’s also capable of great kindness and he occasionally reflects on difficult memories with Riad. This all makes me very keen to see what happens to his parents’ relationship.

The family goes to visit the father’s friend who is a General in the Syrian army and his grand home is shown to be full of cracks. Just like his mansion, this is a culture with many unconvincing facades. Sattouf sensitively shows how the social imbalances and rigidly enforced moralities are a result of people living under a government regime which does not tolerate any different or dissident opinions that conflict with the prevailing order. I’m absolutely gripped now and can’t wait to read the third volume of this striking and original memoir.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf
2 CommentsPost a comment

I read graphic books so rarely, but every time I do pick one up I wonder why I don’t read more. Maybe it’s because usually only the most acclaimed and, presumably, high quality ones reach me. Whatever the case, this first volume of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir about his childhood growing up in Libya, Syria and France is absolutely mesmerising. It depicts his experiences under the parentage of his academic Syrian father Abdul-Razak and his French mother Clementine. His father’s ideals and pride about his heritage are complicated by the real world challenges he and his family encounter living under the rule of Gaddafi in early 80s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria a few years later. Gradually his principles change and he aspires to fashion his young blonde-haired son Riad into the Arab of the future.

Quite often the dialogue which accompanies illustrations of Riad’s experiences combine with very short snippets about political developments of the time. This intelligently puts these scenes in context and gives a welcome insight into the state the family lives under. Also, considering the father’s attitudes alongside our own historical knowledge about the outcome of some of the leaders and regimes he mentions makes this a bracing read. Sections of the book are shaded various colours to differentiate the nations that they are living in: blue for France, yellow for Libya, pink for Syria and (briefly) green for Jersey. I admired how these colours sync with Riad’s descriptions of the different environments of these various locations. The expressive design of the illustrations also beautifully reflect the emotional mood of the story – particularly during some vividly rendered dream sequences and a scene where Riad’s grandmother licks his eyes!

Wonderful touches of humour abound throughout this book including Clementine’s description of Georges Brassens as a French God leading Riad to visualise the singer every time someone mentions God to him. There are also sympathetic portraits of family relations and Riad’s impressions of a series of misfit or bullying other children. Some scenes depict chilling flashes of violence which springs up against animals and people. At other points a fascinating tension appears when the family comes under the sway of competing ideologies – particularly in the virulent anti-Israeli attitudes impressed upon children. For instance, toys Riad and two friends play with in Syria show the Syrian toy soldiers in heroic poses and the Israeli toy soldiers in treacherous poses. These attitudes demonstrate the growing conflict within Abdul-Razak of whom it’s noted “He said he wasn’t religious, but he constantly defended the Sunnis. According to him, the Sunnis were always right.” His cultural and national pride mingles with the dogmatic principles of religious doctrine so he comes to teach Riad things such as “Satan likes to hide inside women.” Reading about the father’s gradually transforming ideas makes me really tense to read how he will develop in the second volume of this graphic memoir.

“The Arab of the Future” is a tremendously engaging story of family life. It’s also a fascinating personal insight into differing cultural attitudes, the physical reality of living under two distinct Arab leaders and how national/social/religious ideologies filter through the consciousness of a wide-eyed adolescent. It’s a heartfelt, refreshing take on growing up in unique circumstances. I highly recommend reading it before the next volume of this trilogy is published in the UK in September by Two Roads.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf

If we’re lucky enough to be raised in a relatively peaceful and happy household we might believe that we’re the innocent inheritors of a well-meaning world. But, as we grow older, we learn the truth about current and past injustice. We slowly understand that our place in the world has to be earned or fought for and that our ancestors undoubtedly have blood on their hands. In Cynthia Bond’s novel, Ruby is a girl who has never had any such illusions of the world’s purity having been shown at an early age the wrath and domineering power of men. She’s a fantastically realized character: an intelligent and strong individual. Ruby also comes to embody all that’s wrong in her community – all the evil things which remain hidden from doe-eyed believers of purity. 

As a young woman Ruby escapes the suffocating confines and abuse of her small community in Texas to live under a different kind of oppression in New York City. But she eventually returns to the place of her birth to live a wretched existence on the fringes of the community where she can protectively foster the spirits of departed babies. Ephram is a man who knew her as a girl. He journeys across the town to bring her a White Lay Angel Cake. He wants to care for and protect Ruby who is shunned by the rest of the community – especially his church-driven and self-righteous sister Celia. However, Ruby has been transformed by the anger and lust of men. She cannot accept any traditionally virtuous path. Bond writes that “Those men were a part of the wheel of the world and helped it turn. The same wheel that Ruby knew would crush her every time she rose up to fight.” The author has an extraordinary way of turning the grim realities of the world she portrays into battling supernatural powers. The abuse and horror that people can inflict can be so extreme that they are transformed in the story into an actual demon or “Dybou” skulking and feeding upon those who have been smothered. This is an environment so saturated with superstition it spills out into the real world. It’s a community entrenched in its belief that those who wield power deserve to possess it. Ruby has learned to navigate this reality and stand outside of it. 

This is a novel populated by a wealth of fascinating and complexly written characters. Although Ruby and Ephram are the most prominent figures, the story winds back to the histories of their parents, extended family and those in the community around them. Ruby’s aunt Neva is a mixed-race strawberry blonde and blue eyed girl who becomes a married white man’s mistress who the community refuses to accept. Ephram’s father Omar (Reverend) Jennings survived a traumatic childhood to preach his sermon, lead a cult of men and inflict terrible abuse upon his wife who eventually goes insane. Ma Tante is a woman of Jamaican descent who lives on the outskirts of town and communes with the spirit world. Celia has raised her younger brother Ephram after they are left on their own, creates fantastic feasts of food and desires more than anything to be the church mother of her congregation. The stories of the novel’s many compelling characters combine to show how extremely brutal the world can be, but also how surprisingly virtuous and kind individuals can make a difference in changing it.

"she caught a supportive, conspiratorial wink from James Baldwin and felt, for a moment, seen and known by sparkling brilliance."

"she caught a supportive, conspiratorial wink from James Baldwin and felt, for a moment, seen and known by sparkling brilliance."

While the novel’s focus is on the all-black community of Liberty township, passages dip into Ruby’s experience in a rapidly changing Harlem and the emerging cultural renaissance. We’re given pleasurable glimpses of some of the prominent writers of the time like Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin. The author is keenly attuned to some of the inherent contradictions that some people who hung upon this scene embodied: “The hip and the beat crowd pretended to pretend that skin color was a frock you donned for the evening.” More disturbingly, she writes a painful portrait of a whorehouse that Ruby comes to live in where women are made to feel they deserve to take whatever their male clients want to give them. She returns to her small community with more sophistication and resilience, but also more burdened by her experiences in the city.

It’s extremely clever how Cynthia Bond blends poignantly realistic detail with supernatural elements to say something new. “Ruby” is a beautifully written and powerful story.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCynthia Bond

During my teenage years some of my favourite books were big English classics like “Bleak House.” Partly told from the point of view of a female character named Esther, we follow her path of self discovery as she was born into a complicated situation in late-Georgian England. She is achingly modest in character while being capable of astute observations. (This led to a lot of criticism of Dickens’ taking on the voice of a female narrator.) Then there were other books like “Jane Eyre” which I came to quite late compared to most people, but I was completely enraptured following the trajectory of the tenacious narrator’s journey towards hard-won love. These are both great immersive tales, but a potential problem is how essentially “good” the narrators of these stories are no matter the obstacles presented to them. Both possess strong personal moral convictions which they adhere to even if it means sacrificing what they want most in life. Now, Janet Ellis has given us a tale set in Georgian London which possesses all the well-plotted intrigue and gritty reality of these great predecessors – yet Ellis’ heroine has a steely determination to break out of the constraints of her circumstances and get the man she wants at any cost.

Anne Jaccob is the canny and passionate narrator. She’s a nineteen year old girl from a prosperous family who are no strangers to bereavement. Anne’s mother has lost many babies in her quest to produce a healthy son – something her irascible father is determined to have. After Anne helped care for a baby brother throughout his infancy only to lose him at an early age, she carefully guards her heart from love even when her mother gives birth to a new baby sister. Grief has caused her to lose a crucial sense of empathy. However, her ardour is awakened with force when she meets a roguishly handsome and confident young butcher named Fub. The couple have a passionate physical and romantic affair. Anne ardently resolves to be with him despite a marriage her father arranges for her with a calculating and evocatively-named older man Mr Onions. She wittily manipulates those around her and isn’t afraid of resorting to brute force to be with her suave butcher boy.

This is a distinctly original novel of a young woman’s sexual awakening. Anne is someone who has been deeply emotionally damaged. The loss of her brother and the abuse she suffers at the hands of a particularly unsavoury family friend/teacher combine with all her teenage passion to make her a formidable individual. She is savvy enough to see the shortcomings of those around her and play them to her own advantage. Anne’s narrative is so vivid it invokes the sensory experience of the time period and the unsavoury habits of those around her. Yet, Ellis doesn’t cut short small insights a reader can make into other character’s internal struggles including the Jaccob family’s housekeeper, the baby’s nursemaid or even the strict father.

The Smithfield meat market described dates from the 10th century

The Smithfield meat market described dates from the 10th century

Ellis writes so well about that all-consuming infatuation we’ve all felt in first love. It’s not romanticized, but deeply physical and tied to a strident rejection of Anne’s circumstances. Anne comments that “We do not need pretty rainbows, Fub and I. We will not brush hands at a dance or exchange covert glances in the back of a carriage. That is a sugary romance, collapsing in brittle shards when you bite. Ours is as chewy as glue.” Even when it becomes clear that Fub isn’t invested in their future as a couple, Anne is stuck to her vision of their future together. This romance is ignited by disturbing forces which inspire Anne to take drastic action. It’s refreshing to read about a character set in this time period that is in many ways sympathetic, yet is also capable of horrifyingly monstrous acts. The drama escalates throughout the novel making it an increasingly gripping read as the story progresses.

Since I actually work near London’s historic Smithfield Market (which still functions as a meat market today), it was grimly fascinating being able to walk through it and imagine the setting of “The Butcher’s Hook” as the butchery where Fub works is close to this location. The brutality with which meat is carved into portioned and carried off reflects Anne’s savage spirit. Janet Ellis has created a fierce, memorable heroine and an inventive atmospheric story. It has all the richness of Dickensian detail and the modern flair of Sarah Waters. I also have to mention that the cover design and colour of this book is exceptionally beautiful.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJanet Ellis