The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

Rating: ★★★★☆

It is 1763, and 19-year-old Anne Jaccob – daughter of a wealthy merchant – is due to marry an odious older gentleman against her will.  Unwilling to accept her fate, she begins a quiet rebellion against her father, who has arranged the marriage, spurred on by the thought of ending up in a loveless relationship much like the one her parents seem to endure.

At the same time, she meets Fub – a butcher’s apprentice – and the two begin an intense relationship born out of their mutual desire.  Knowing that her parents would never accept such a match, they are required to sneak around to be with each other, snatching quick kisses in dark doorways when given the opportunity.  And what begins as a tale of impossible love between two ill-matched youngsters takes quite a dark turn as Anne becomes ever more desperate to pursue her relationship with Fub, whatever the cost.

The Butcher’s Hook is quite an unusual tale, and Anne is not at all what you expect from a young, 18th century woman.  Here is an individual who knows her own mind, and is determined to get what she wants, despite her tender years.  She has few tools at her disposal, but she is extremely clever, and uses this to her advantage.  She is happy to threaten and manipulate where cajoling fails, and when necessary will resort to feminine wiles, although she has little experience of sex and desire until she meets Fub.

I think that Anne is likely to create some conflict for readers – I felt sorry for her predicament and admired her determination, but I didn’t always agree with her methods.  That said, she was a significantly more interesting character than many, and I enjoyed reading about a truly original individual.

This is a novel about first love, set in a time when love was considered to be something of an irrelevance – at best a bonus – and marriages were made in order to improve the status or prospects of one or both parties involved.  And Ellis certainly manages to capture the experience of first love (or lust) successfully – the rush of emotion, the desire, the way in which all other thoughts become secondary as well as the doubts and fears that go hand in hand with the elation that such an experience brings, without it being overly romanticised.

Throughout, I thought I knew where the novel was heading, and so I was pleasantly surprised by the ending – it wasn’t at all what I expected.  This is a dark, twisted tale that is bleakly humourous.  Well written, it is an accomplished debut, and I look forward to seeing what Ellis does next.

The Butcher’s Hook was published today (25 February).  Many thanks to Two Roads – an imprint of John Murray Press – for providing a copy for review.

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