this takes place in georgian england, and tracks the twisting connections between ruth; a woman born to a brothel-owner who becomes a pugilist at the ago of ten, charlotte; a gentlewoman horribly scarred from a bout of childhood smallpox, and george; the lover of charlotte’s dissipated brother perry, who has a hunger both for gambling and for the leisured life of the wealthy.
i found all three viewpoint-characters equally engaging, as well as the several dickensian secondary characters who aren’t given their own voiced chapters, but who weave in and out of the stories, tightening connections between characters in a delicious way.
this is one of those detail-rich historical novels that just sucks you completely into the world; its smells and sights, its slang and frustrations. it’s dense and textured, but with plenty of action to keep you completely riveted. i read it straight through to 4 in the morning and then woke up at 6 just so i could dive right back in.
the hook is obviously the female pugilist angle, but that’s not the book’s focus throughout. it’s not just about women fighting with their fists, but also all the other fights women of that era faced. the lack of independence for women of the upper-class like charlotte, who required chaperoning to do anything at all, and whose most stimulating amusement was embroidery or a walk through the gardens on her own land. the seeming independence of the lower-class like ruth, who could swagger amongst men and bare her legs to punch men and women in the face, but who had no financial stability, nor safety net should fighting cease to be an option due to injury or loss of sponsor. marriage was always the surest means for a woman to attain security, and despite ruth being deemed too ugly to become a prostitute like her voluptuous sister dora, and charlotte’s severe scarring, both women do find husbands. but marriage brings its own set of difficulties, particularly for charlotte.
despite their disparate backgrounds, ruth and charlotte build a friendship, and there are unexpected parallels in their circumstances, mostly in the tedium of their lives, where so much of their time is spent waiting in empty rooms for something to happen; waiting for a man to come home.
and for charlotte, the profound novelty in something that seems so trivial:
The key to the front door of the gatehouse was just where it should have been, tucked out of sight upon the lintel. I had never before made use of a key to open the front door of any kind of dwelling. Keys had been things to secure the doors of bedrooms, or music boxes. I felt like a housebreaker, and somehow like a grown woman – or perhaps I felt like a man. How odd to see my own hand turn the key and push open the door. Then I felt strange all over again as I stepped inside.
it’s spectacular – the writing, the development of the characters, the structure – the way the story is doled out only to have additional details emerge from a different character’s perspective later. it’s a remarkably tight debut.
i realize i haven’t said anything about george (nor dryer, tom, dora, perry, henry, jacky, ruth’s mother, etc), but that’s probably because his story requires too much detail to adequately discuss. but it’s equally compelling and his immature, grasping personality is both reprehensible ad sympathetic.
ohhh, it’s a good book – all seedy and bloody and dirty and lonesome and brash. a breathtaking debut.
good lord, i am on such a great-book streak* lately. which probably means the next thing i pick up will be horrible, but i’ll try to choose wisely.
* i mean, except for Space Raptor Butt Invasion.