The novel follows Lily and Elijah, orphaned twins who are taken to live with their grandfather on a prosperous estate, and Pearl, and orphan who grows up in a brothel being groomed for life as a prostitute. A chance meeting of all three in a freak show tent leads to their very different lives becoming entwined.
Without giving too much away about the book for those who might go on to read it, the story is told from two perspectives – Lily and Pearl’s – and follows the twists and turns in their lives as they grow up. I do feel it’s a shame that there isn’t another part told from Elijah’s perspective, but the mixed-media style, with its inclusion of newspaper cuttings and diary entries, gives alternative accounts of events and offers the reader a small insight into various other character’s experiences, including Elijah’s.
I was a little disappointed that all the females in the novel seemed very much to be victims of the ‘stronger’, domineering males – but perhaps this simply reflects the situation most women were in at the time, particularly when considering the way women were treated as the weaker, unstable sex.
“He was tapping his cane against his thigh while sliding closer to Freddie and speaking confidentially. ‘Women are so like children, you see, in their appetites for unhealthy food. It is the heat and overexcitement that causes most of the trouble…not to mention this modern obsession with reading books and magazines. You will note we have none available here. Why, half the women in my care would probably be entirely sane but for the stimulation brought on by the use of literature. I say that might be the problem…'”
One of the things I loved about reading this novel is the bizarre, often unsettling images Fox includes – from the misshapen physical manifestations of syphilis to the shrivelled mermaid and the awful treatment of women medically in mental institutions.
Essie Fox writes with suspense, painting a picture of what Victorian London’s gloomy underbelly was like for all walks of life without being excessively descriptive, resulting in a dark and unsettling social commentary that surely cannot fail to capture the imagination.
Definitely an author I’ll be reading more of!
Vist Essie Fox’s website for more information on the author, her works and the background to both novels: http://essiefox.com/