Tuesday 14 April 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: Things in Jars, Jess Kidd (2020)

The crowded, murky streets of Victorian London. A detective. And a missing child. Pretty standard fare, you might think, for a historical mystery set in the nineteenth century, but Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars (2020), the latest novel under review in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, is anything but expected.

Things in Jars, Jess Kidd (2020)
First there’s her detective, Bridie—fearless, flame haired and ugly bonneted. Then there are the protagonist’s sidekicks—a seven-foot maid, with a penchant for a woman snake charmer, and a tattooed boxer, who may be either a ghost or a drug-induced hallucination. Christabel, the child Bridie has been employed to find, isn’t ordinary either. She has teeth like a pike. Snails, newts and other nasties trail after her. It’s said she can drown enemies even on dry land.

Things in Jars isn’t for the weak-hearted or stomached. But that doesn’t mean the novel offers only darkness. There’s a humour to the story, which is a wonderful complement to its macabre subjects, and an empathy to the shifting point of view, which plunges us into many characters’ motivations, feelings and desires, even those of a raven wheeling high above the scene. Kidd’s use of language is also astonishing. Her vocabulary is vast but her words always well chosen. Her Irish characters’ voices are expertly rendered—believable and lyrical without relying on cliché or non-standard spelling to convey dialect.

The fantastical elements of the story stood out for me in particular. I’m not a huge reader of historical fantasy, though I have reviewed a few favourites for this blog in the past (e.g. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus). But Kidd’s creatures are unique and genuinely uncanny, as unnerving as any creation straight from the pages of a nineteenth-century Gothic.

Things in Jars is a wonderful book to read if you want to stray outside your normal genre choices. The novel takes a familiar historical setting and makes it alien, gives us a satisfying conclusion to its central mystery while leaving us with more, and gives readers a creature of the ocean depths that belongs in neither The Little Mermaid, nor The Shape of Water.

Which novel would you like to see me review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels written in the twenty first century, but set in the nineteenth? Let me know, here, on Facebook, on Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianistAnd if you want to read about my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which was edited by the same editor as Things in Jars, click here and/or sign up for my monthly newsletter below.

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