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.
From the very first sentence, this book wraps you round in a coat of darkness, tension, low-life street horror and kick-ass descriptive poetry strong enough to obliterate several countries and still have time for a gin or two.
I loved it.
After all, any first page in a novel that has this paragraph in it gets my vote:
Cursing drivers, bellowing poultry hawkers, beer-fuelled brawlers – the city seemed made of gaping mouths. Stumps of teeth as rotten as taters, gums mashed by scurvy, noses crumpled by the pox. Mary squeezed round a horde of men outside a tavern, their armpits level with her nostrils. Beyond their oniony heat and the blast of ale fumes, the air chilled her face.
Really, what’s not to love? It’s heaven. Kill-Grief tells the story of Mary Helsall, who arrives in Chester in 1756, carrying her own bitter secrets but determined to carve an independent future for herself, despite the variety of men who lay claim to her, body and soul. Frankly, this is how historical novels should be written – with the setting so densely and sharply described that it becomes a character in itself. For it’s the quality, intensity and sheer poetry of the writing that captures the reader and doesn’t allow them to leave until the very end. In fact this key aspect of the novel reminds me of the writing of DH Lawrence – and, like his work, it’s best to savour the experience of reading rather than rush through it.
But let me turn to Mary. It’s great to find a strong female character who fits into her world and historical setting perfectly well (ie it’s not a case of a modern gal transported into a period piece, which is always irritating) but who still possesses her own independent thought processes that don’t jar with the age she lives in. That said, she’s not an overly likeable character, but really that suits me just fine as I don’t like overly likeable people. Either in fiction or real-life. She has reality and depth and an overwhelming sense of being more than the sum of her parts, and that’s really all I want in my novel characters. And she’s strong enough to carry both the velvet weight of description – seen of course all through her eyes – and the mysteries and tension of the plot. There is one small part of the novel, however, that doesn’t quite ring true; Mary’s relationship with Anthony, the porter at the hospital where she works, seems to start far too early for the character, her story and the traumatic emotional history she carries with her and which we only discover more about later on. I personally think it would have been better for Mary not to have fallen so instantly in love with him – it just isn’t her, not after what she’s been through and the things she knows she has to face. It would have been more believable and more solid for the friendship/relationship with Anthony to have been allowed more room in the novel to breathe and find its own pace. What we have now seems a little forced.
Which brings me to the men in the novel. Kill-Grief is primarily a novel about Mary Helsall and Chester. Those are its main purposes. And it’s brilliant at both. But there are three key secondary male characters who are also a part of the whole: Selwyn, Mary’s imprisoned husband; the porter Anthony; and Bryce Warbreck, the shadowy man in Mary’s past who changes everything. Of the three of them, it’s Selwyn who seems most alive and real, even though he doesn’t appear very often within the book. I was wondering why this should be, and I think part of the reason is this: Selwyn is in prison in terrible circumstances and it is in describing these conditions that Rance’s gritty poetic writing style truly comes into its own. The grimmer the setting and the more desperate the people, the more grounded they become under her pen. There is an inextricable link between character and how character is described that hits the reader right between the eyes and is impossible to ignore. As a result, the rather less desperate (though of course not actually happy) characters of Anthony and Warbreck perhaps lose something in the telling. In addition, in the case of Anthony, his reality is weakened somewhat by his too-quick introduction as Mary’s new love interest and I do also think that this is not a novel about love. It’s a novel about women and the survival of women. Mary is far more vital than any of the men around her, and rightly so. It does here remind me (though the genres are hugely different!) of the Jasper Fforde Thursday Next series of fantasy novels where Thursday’s relationship with her husband (whose name I cannot even remember – a point in itself I feel …) just gets in the way of her story and character. I do wonder what would have happened – and just how even more powerful the character of Mary might have been – if Anthony didn’t in fact exist, and Mary’s story was one of slowly removing herself from the influence of both Selwyn and Warbreck alone. Something in my head keeps telling me that the wonderful Mary is in fact at her essence a woman who has learnt and is learning to survive without love and on her own, even in those historical times. An interesting thought anyway.
Incidentally, I couldn’t review this novel without saying that it’s a delight to be in the presence of so much appropriate vomit. I do think the appearance of sickness in the modern novel is a thesis just waiting to be written – and if anyone out there would like to tackle that multi-colour subject, then this novel is the one to start with. Here, as Mary is a nurse, the vomit is entirely to be expected, and in her struggle with her – and Anthony’s – gin addiction, it also perfectly naturally makes its appearance known. And more power to its gut is what I say. There should be more of it – though I do appreciate this is an entirely personal view.
So my overall opinion is that, despite very very minor reservations here and there, this novel is a five-star class act. It’s an astonishment (though sadly not an entire surprise in these difficult publication times) to me why it hasn’t been picked up by a more mainstream publisher, and huge applause to Picnic Publishing for choosing it. It’s dark and rich and bitter, and you won’t regret the read. When Rance publishes her next, I’ll be first in the queue.