Anne Jaccob is coming of age in late eighteenth-century London, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. When she is taken advantage of by her tutor — a great friend of her father’s — and is set up to marry a squeamish snob named Simeon Onions, she begins to realize just how powerless she is in Victorian society. Anne is watchful, cunning, and bored.
Her saviour appears in the form of Fub, the butcher’s boy. Their romance is both a great spur and an excitement. Anne knows she is doomed to a loveless marriage to Onions and she is determined to escape with Fub and be his mistress. But will Fub ultimately be her salvation or damnation? And how far will she go to get what she wants?
Dark and sweeping, The Butcher’s Hook is a richly textured debut featuring one of the most memorable characters in fiction.
I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Butcher’s Hook to review and began reading it as soon as it arrived. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this historical novel but it hooked (no pun intended!) me in from the first few pages.
This novel really felt like it had two distinct halves. The first half is very much about how repressed Anna Jaccob’s life is. She is living in a household that oppresses her, the family meals are often eaten in silence and there’s very little conversation to be had with anyone the rest of the time. Anna’s mother is very distant having suffered a series of lost babies and she’s recently given birth to a daughter; Anna struggles with her feelings towards the new baby and this further isolates her from time with her mother. The desire that Anna has for something to happen, to break free of this repression emanates off the page and you really get a sense that something is building in her.
Later in the novel Anna falls for the butcher’s boy and from that moment on her life changes dramatically. She becomes quite obsessed with this budding romance and will stop at nothing to get the boy. I was not expecting the novel to build in the way it did but it becomes quite the bawdy romp and very difficult to put down. I think I preferred the first half of this novel but the second half is impossible to look away from so it really does keep you turning the pages. The denouement of the novel is unexpected, but so good for that.
The style of The Butcher’s Hook reminded me a little of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White with that real mix of period detail but the openness about sex and desire that you often only see in more modern set novels – the Georgian era of Jane Austen this is not! Anna seems like quite a modern girl trapped in a world that wasn’t yet ready for all she wanted, and indeed expected, out of her life. She is intensely frustrated that she can’t just do what she wants when she wants and that she has to surrender to what her father wants for her. I loved the nods to Dickens with little touches like the slimy man that Anna’s father choses for her to marry, who is named Simeon Onions.
I was torn in how I felt about Anna. In the first half of the novel I had moments where I felt sorry for her – I wanted her to experience some lightness in her life and some freedom from the oppressive home she’d grown up in. However, there were then moments where she behaved so horribly that I was brought up short and unsure what to make of her. Anna’s increasingly twisted logic and behaviour as the novel progresses seems to suggest that she always had a wicked side. She’s certainly a memorable character though and one that has lingered in my mind since I finished reading the novel.
All-in-all I loved this novel – it’s a deliciously dark and twisted novel that became something that I wasn’t expecting and it’s wonderful to find a novel that surprised me so much. I already can’t wait to read Janet Ellis’ next book!
I rated this novel 4 out of 5 and highly recommend it.
I was lucky enough to do a Q&A with Janet Ellis for the blog tour for this book, you can read that HERE if you’d like to.
I received a copy of this book for review from Two Roads Books via Book Bridgr.
As an aside I absolutely loved the cover artwork and the end papers in this book, they are stunning.
I thought it looked a little familiar and then discovered that the company that designed the book’s artwork are called Timorous Beasties, who also designed the artwork on the Kate Bush concert tickets that we kept from when we saw her in 2014. I now so badly want to own some art by them so I’m saving up!