Sunday 20 October 2019

Things in Jars: Victorian thriller with a modern message

Fiction: Things in Jars

Jess Kidd

Canongate, hardback, 416 pages, €20.99

Capturing Victorian London: Jess Kidd was born in England to Irish parents
Capturing Victorian London: Jess Kidd was born in England to Irish parents
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

There's a lovely bendiness to the world of Jess Kidd's third novel - a Victorian mystery with a cast that includes a seven-foot tall housemaid, a kidnapped child who can cause people to drown on land, and a heartsick ghost whose arms are galleries of moving tattoos.

Set mainly in 1860s London, Things in Jars tracks private investigator Bridie Devine in her quest to find Christabel - part little girl, part sea-creature. Held captive by a trigger-happy con-woman, Christabel has been abducted from an aristocrat claiming to be her father and is now coveted by even shadier individuals.

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Helped in the search by her giant housemaid, Cora, and a dead boxer - both fiercely loyal to her - Bridie follows her instincts, seeking out those with a taste for medical curiosities, dressing as a man in order to attend a public operation, and visiting a circus master obsessed with Henry VIII. Interspersed with her investigation are flashbacks to her own childhood, when, already an orphan, she was sold to a doctor with a terrifyingly malevolent son.

As in her previous two novels - Himself and The Hoarder - in Things in Jars, Jess Kidd embraces magic realism but pays careful attention to geography and sense details so that the supernatural is balanced with the everyday.

Born in London to Irish parents, Kidd uses her native city as more than a backdrop here, diving into her chosen era, capturing the noises and smells.

"Just beyond you'll detect the unwashed crotch of the overworked prostitute... Above all, you may notice the rich and sickening chorus of shit."

Like Sarah Waters, Kidd knows how to write Victorian society so that it's current and alive, but her fictional landscape is entirely her own, drawing on the Gothic and the picaresque, on myth and fairy tales, on steampunk and screwball comedy. It's rare enough to read a book where there's such a palpable sense of the writer having a great time.

For the most part, Kidd manages the various strands of her plot with verve, her roving point of view moving between goodies, baddies and animals while never losing sight of Bridie. Her characters are plentiful, colourful and distinct; her prose has a gleeful, lyrical energy; her dialogue is fresh and funny and does several things at once. "Tramping all over, spending shoe leather," Cora says to Bridie disapprovingly. In the hands of a lesser writer, Cora might have been a grotesque. Instead she is vivid and memorable, rough and smooth - "a reticent warrior, not looking for battle but resigned to it" - and her relationship with Bridie is an unsentimental portrait of strong female friendship.

Kidd does not back away from the sinister and the violent. Himself opened with the horrific killing of a young mother and Things in Jars is full of vulnerable children and potential assailants waiting in the wings.

There are murders and rapes on these pages, and the threat of vivisection and other kinds of brutality hangs over Christabel, but Kidd is sure-footed as she moves between darkness and light.

There's a lot of obvious social commentary going on: about poverty, class discrimination, sexism and the exclusion of women from medicine and other professions.

And central to the narrative is a more contemporary issue. As the captive Christabel starts to cut her adult teeth, the tributaries of London "swell and course". Pigeons, wrens and robins disappear until only water birds remain. "Outside every tenement the water butts resonate, in every puddle and pond, bucket and trough there is a quickening."

In one sense, the story is a covert morality tale. While Christabel is more than a straightforward metaphor for climate change, by depicting Victorian London in the grip of an ecological crisis, Kidd is making a point both about the girl's power and the fallout from her exploitation.

Until the last few chapters - when the present and past collide - Things in Jars moves along at a lively pace. It loses its way slightly towards the end when too much happens in a rush. Nevertheless, it's disappointing when it does end. Kidd has created such a strange and complete world navigated by a bold and winning woman. Like the novel, Bridie is whip-smart and streetwise, funny and serious at once; she deserves a sequel.

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