Wednesday 21 February 2024

Neo-Victorian Voices: Edith Holler, Edward Carey (2023)

Welcome back to the Secret Victorianist and my Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I write about books published in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. Today, I’m breaking my own rules by reviewing a novel set in 1901, but, since that was the year of Queen Victoria’s death and this is mentioned in the opening pages of the book, I’m going to give myself an exception.

Our main character, Edith Holler, is a 12-year-old girl who lives in a theater in Norwich in the East of England. In fact, she has never left the Holler Theater due to a curse cast upon her as an infant. Carey’s love for the theatrical world is apparent on every page. I particularly enjoyed how he compares backstage to the different decks of a ship, the strong contrasts he draws between the front and back of the house, and the inclusion of actorly superstitions, such as referring to fire in the theater as “Mr. Jet.”

But as much as this is a book about the stage play world, it is also a book about Norwich. The character of Edith is an expert on the city she has only seen from the roof or through the windows of her theater, and Carey draws on a wealth of Norfolk history about and myth while embellishing upon it too with his vivid imagination.

I didn’t realize when I first picked up the book how much it would veer into the territory of historical fantasy, but I was delighted as the chapters became more and more unsettling and surreal. The Norwich of Edith Holler is overrun by deathwatch beetles, which locals make into an (apparently) appetizing paste. The problem? Edith suspects that murdered children are the secret ingredient in the city’s famous Beetle Spread, and her father is planning to marry into the family of (cannibal?) entrepreneurs behind the historic recipe. 

You’ll love this book, like I did, if you’re a fan of the bizarre and the macabre. I wrote before about Edward Carey’s 2018 Little. In both novels, Carey includes his own illustrations, bringing his creations to life. In Edith Holler, many of these illustrations are the pieces of a toy theater, which transported me back to the world of Pollock’s Toy Museum, a nineteenth-century gem I reviewed for the blog a decade ago. You can even download the pieces of the theater from Carey’s website if you fancy recreating the Gothic delights of the novel for yourself. I don’t know personally if I’d want to bring Edith and her dark world into my apartment, but I’ll undoubtedly be reading whatever Carey writes next.

Which novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want more blog posts like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter here.