”Have you reason to be bothering that corpse, madam?”
it took me a damn long time to get through this book, which is the fate of pretty much anything i stupidly decide to read during the weeks leading up to christmas, so don’t read anything into this admission; i’m just making with the context up-front. it is a gorgeous book, cover-wise* and content-wise, but it
requires deserves a reader who isn’t sluggish and overburdened. next holiday season, i am only reading airport thrillers.
so, nota bene: it is not a book to attempt when your mind is likely to be distracted by a million anxieties and fires to put out. (if they are figurative fires, it’s your call, but if you have literal fires to put out, those should always come before reading, ya nerd!) it is a slower-paced book with shifts in time, a central mystery plot the reader is string-dangled away from into several additional mystery plots, and a large cast of characters whose agendas and allegiances are slippery and may not be what they seem, requiring several mental cubbyholes for sorting. ordinarily, all of these things would be selling points to me, rather than hindrances, but right book/right time &etc.
ANYWAY, ENOUGH ABOUT ME
this was presented to me as a book i would love because i loved The Book of Speculation and i can see the comparison, although this book is way grittier and bloodier View Spoiler »“I wanted to see inside her.” « Hide Spoiler shudder. both books involve secrets and personal or family mysteries threaded through with magic, and also mermaids. in BOS, they are circus mermaids, in this, they are…much scarier; a proto-mermaid creature new to me—the merrow.
WOT’S A MERROW?
”A marine nightmare and the stuff of legends, something like a violent mermaid, I dare say.”
or, more colorfully,
“A memory-reading, dry-land-drowning, man-biting sea lunatic.”
the quicksell of this is that it’s a magical-mystery-historical—a victorian-london underbelly novel helmed by bridie devine—a sturdy, pipe-smoking, detective and cause-of-death savant who is called upon for the more…unusual deaths, of which there is no shortage.
London is awash with the freshly murdered. Bodies appear hourly, blooming in doorways with their throats cut, prone in alleyways with the head knocked in. Half-burnt in hearths and garroted in garrets, folded into trunks or bobbing about in the Thames, great bloated shoals of them.
this case is presented as a missing-child case but turns out to be something altogether different, and there will be plenty of deaths and murders to challenge bridie along the way, as well as the stream of acquaintances old and new, welcome and unwelcome. the most notable new/old welcome/unwelcome pal is the shirtless ghost of a tattooed boxer named ruby doyle who begins following bridie around, flirty and besotted and coy, refusing to tell her how they know (knew) each other, teasingly trying to stoke her memory AND ALSO THE FIRE IN HER LOINS.
there are many high points in this book: bridie and ruby are highly enjoyable characters, and their banter and relationship and o’ the unfairness of the girl-and-ghost love story holds great appeal. and cora—cora is a knockout supporting character; stubble-chinned, seven feet tall, and as loyal as they come, rescued from a bear cage and into bridie’s service as housemaid, confidant and backup muscle. she excels in two of these three roles.
the atmosphere, the descriptions, the whole blending of the victorian street squalor with fantastical creature fantasy makes for an engaging and immersive read. that narrative is broken up by chapters exploring bridie’s past from scrappy-urchin childhood, through a series of mentors teaching her street crime and medicine, which i loved even more than the ‘present-day’ ‘where’s the pointy-toothed child?’ storyline.
but yeah, the plot is more intricate than my dozy, distracted brain could handle at the time i read it. it definitely deserves a reread, when i’m better able to focus on the density of the plot, the time shifts, and the large cast of characters. although i was occasionally confused and mixing up characters and having to go back to reorient myself, the parts that i dug i dug hard, so i’m rounding my felt-3 1/2 to a 4 because it’s not the book’s fault december is so bad.
i would like to read this again, in a better headspace, and i don’t say that about many books.
*do you see those tiny shiny snails? so cute!