London, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet.
Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist.
As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fantastical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showman. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment.
The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen.
You know those books that you love so much that you just can’t find the right words to tell anyone about them? The books that you just want to go and press into the hands of friends, family – strangers even – and say “read it, just read it”. Yeah, Things in Jars is one of those books.
But, hey, I’m a book blogger and finding words to talk about books is one of the things I’m supposed to do apparently. So I shall do my level best to tell you why I loved Things in Jars and why I think you should go and read it too!
At its heart, Things in Jars is a novel about Bridie Divine. Female detective, surgeon’s apprentice, and resurrectionist’s ward, Bridie is a fascinatingly complex character who moves between the respectable country houses of London’s elite and the sinister underbelly of the city with apparent ease. Quick-witted and determined, Bridie has made it her mission to protect the city from the anatomists, surgeons and showman who seek to make spectacles out of the unusual – or simply to prey upon the poor and innocent.
Assisting her in this task are Cora Butter, her seven-foot-tall housemaid whose first instinct is to give guests – troublesome or otherwise – a ‘good clattering’, and Ruby Doyle, a tattooed prizefighter with handsome brown eyes and a debonair disposition who just so happens to be recently deceased. Her mysterious undead partner is, however, the least of Bridie’s worries when she is summoned to investigate the apparent kidnapping of Christabel Berwick. For at Maris House, she finds a room dripping in water. Servants whisper of a girl with the teeth of a pike, who can delve into the minds of men and kill with a single bite. There are stories of a woman who drowned on dry land and an apparition that haunts the gardens at night.
Thus begins one of the strangest but most compelling novels that I have read. Jess Kidd moves seamlessly between the real, the unreal and the surreal in Things in Jars, weaving apparently magical and mystical elements into her otherwise straightforward detective tale. The novel defies genre and resists easy categorization as either ‘historical fiction’, ‘detective story’ or ‘magical realism’. Instead, it manages to be all of these things and, in some ways, none of them. The result should be a hot mess but is, in Kidd’s hands, a thrilling and mysterious story that was by turns hilarious and heart-breaking and was, at all times, compulsively readable.
Bridie Devine is an absolute treat of a protagonist. Fiercely intelligent, she is full of spark whilst also having a softer side that leaves her, on occasion, heartbreakingly vulnerable. Kidd’s other characters are similarly layered. Beneath a charismatic swagger, there is melancholy, whilst a tough exterior can hide a heart of gold. Respectable appearances can be deceptive, and even the canniest of operators might fall foul of some of the slipperier characters in this novel!
By the end of the book, all of the characters felt familiar but my personal favourite was Bridies mentor, Prudhoe – a genius eccentric who lives in a windmill, analyses stomach contents for a living, invents new forms of narcotic, and dotes on his collection of pet ravens. Kidd’s description of Prudhoe had me laughing out loud and I could immediately picture him – wiry frame flitting around the inside of his windmill and talking to his corvids amidst a haze of smoke.
The world Kidd has created – and the characters she places within it – are exceptionally vivid. I could envisage each chapter as if the scene were playing out in front of me – the novel would make for a fantastic drama series – and really felt as if I lived the novel alongside the characters. Her characters speak with ‘real’ voices without ever resorting to stereotype, whether these are the voices of the streets or the polished tones of an expensive education. And whilst the story is often dark, there’s humour shot all the way through – whether in a witty turn of phrase, a moment of banter, or a description of a place or person.
As you can probably tell, I adored this book. It has so many of the elements that I look for in a book – a strong and compelling narrative, a vivid recreation of a historical moment, complex characters with rich histories, and a central mystery with some supernatural elements.
It’s hard to find anything to compare it to – the closest I can think of is Imogen Hermes Gower’s wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which offers a similarly madcap blend of the historical and the fantastical alongside a vivid recreation of a moment in time – and Things in Jars is so wonderfully unique that it defies easy categorisation. What I would say is that if you love compelling stories with vivid characters – and you don’t mind an element of the fantastical – then you need to pick Things in Jars up!
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd is published by Canongate and is available now in ebook and paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.
Don’t forget that although your local bookshop might be closed at the moment, you can also support your local indie bookshops by ordering from them online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.