A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Euthanasia Bondeson is a middle-aged Swedish authoress visiting London in 1851 – the year of the Great Exhibition. She’s accompanied by the scatty and totally map-blind Agnes, who is ‘fair and tall, pure and invincible like her saintly namesake.’
Euthanasia has employed Agnes as a companion, and yet Euthanasia spends most of her time looking after Agnes, rather than vice versa. When Agnes disappears without trace at the British Museum, Euthanasia’s new ‘peeler’ friend, Police Inspector Evans, comes to her aid and together they embark on a quest to recover the hapless girl whose English consists mostly of ‘You are a humbug, sir!’
During her search, Euthanasia meets artists, beggars, prostitutes, professors, ravishing society beauties and a somewhat shady man of the cloth. The novel has a gorgeous pastiche-like flavour about it, and offers the reader an absorbing fictional world. The writing is elegant and full of bright images, smells and textures. As far as escapism goes, this is as good as it gets: at times I felt as if I was actually in the book.
The Streets of Babylon is that rare work of historical fiction in which attention to period detail does not detract from plot or pace. In fact, quite ingeniously, the period details are often central to the plot. The museum exhibits, which so captivate Euthanasia’s attention (and ours), provide the perfect cover for Agnes’s abduction:
I tried to recall when I had last seen Agnes. She had been with us when we went from Egypt to Assyria, because she had argued about Babylon and Nineveh. But after that? She had definitely been standing right beside Sir Edmund when he began his oration on the reliefs, just as I tired of it and went off by myself. Was she there when we moved on to the bulls?
The novel steers clear of the dreaded ‘info-dump’ and yet is still hugely informative. One scene takes place in a ‘molly house’, a term I had not heard before:
They were sitting about it dainty dresses that looked incongruous alongside their rough chins and the hairy chests revealed by their necklines. For mollies are men in women’s clothing. Many of them would have liked to live bourgeois lives, but as the world is, they had no option but to hide away in the slums.
Euthanasia feels safe and comfortable in the molly house, but that peace is shattered when she witnesses a familiar face emerging from one of the bedrooms…
Each chapter details a new adventure, and these are all the more exciting as our narrator’s imagination is as wild as her novels – extracts of which pepper the text. Nothing is as it seems and mistaken identities abound: men are dressed as women and women as men, walking sticks hold secrets and ‘decent’ characters are proved otherwise.
My favourite element of the novel, however, is its narrative of food. I have never seen so much unapologetic eating in a novel. As Euthanasia puts it:
For a really elegant lady, food is the great threat, which destroys the figure and thus all prospect of success. I am not as elegant as that. In the Swedish provinces, the young ladies of the country manor houses keep up their strength for balls and sleigh rides. The same applies for hunting English criminals.
Breakfast is taken very seriously:
When breakfast was served at about nine…I threw my famished self on the selection offered that day. As well as my usual egg, bacon and sausage, I helped myself to kidneys, a fish and rice dish and a little cup of potted shrimps.
If I had any complaint it would be that at points there was too much tension and I found myself so involved with the characters that I actually had to skip forward and read the ending (!) as I couldn’t bear the suspense.
Sarah Death does a brilliant job of translating from the Swedish. If I hadn’t been told, I would never have guessed this was a work in translation. For a heavy dose of scandal, intrigue, thrills and the odd message in a bottle, I highly recommend The Streets of Babylon.