24th March, 2019
Review: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (Canongate Books)
In Things in Jars we follow feisty and intelligent protagonist Bridget (Bridie) Devine, the finest female detective of her age who has taken on her toughest case yet. Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped, but Christabel is no ordinary child. With out-of-this-world abilities, a tendency to influence people's memories, eyes that change colour, and pike's teeth that can do horrible damage, Christabel might just be the spectacle that Victorian society desires. Bridie promises herself not to fail another child and enters a world of fanatical anatomists, mercenary showmen and crooked doctors in order to recover the stolen girl.
There are two things you have to simply love about this book: the characters and the beguilingly vivid setting. Kidd's story is full of stellar women who are not willing to conform to what Victorian decorum tells them to be, and the reader follows these powerful characters throughout increasingly weird and sometimes eerie situations. Kidd's wonderful portrayal of the Victorian Age had me hooked early on. In lyrical prose she arrestingly describes the sights, sounds and smells of London in the 1800s. It is particularly in these passages that her amazing talent becomes obvious.
The story switches back and forth in time to tell us about Bridie's childhood, such as her coming over from Ireland, her early years of 'acquiring' corpses with Gan, and her eventually becoming laboratory apprentice to Dr John Eames. Bridie's past weaves itself through the narrative and not only in these flashbacks. There are stomach-turning killings, quite a bit of betrayal, and eventually Bridie's life is threatened as a vengeful enemy returns. All of this is peppered with curious but also creepy stories of walled-in children and women, of strange sea creatures and maybe the most stunning curiosity of them all: "the Winter Mermaid".
Jess Kidd clearly has a marvellous way with words. She is a sublime storyteller and her prose is always spot-on. The only thing I would criticise is that, for me, the story could have been a bit more 'pacey'. While I loved all the little details I sometimes wished that the narrative would move on a bit. The end, in contrast, then seemed a little rushed. This might just be my personal problem with Kidd's novels, however, as I experienced the same with her two previous books The Hoarder and Himself: I usually love the plot, the details and the characters but seemingly tend to have a bit of an issue with her stories' pacing.
All in all, Things in Jars is a great novel for anyone who likes a good Victorian story with gothic elements, characters with quite a bit of agency and a mixture of folklore with the ordinary.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
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