Little grabbed my attention as soon as I heard about it, and I’m so pleased to have had the opportunity to read it ahead of publication.
The wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris, befriended by royalty and radicals alike, who transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud.
In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Alsace. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and… at the wax museum, heads are what they do.
Edward Carey’s Little is a wonder – the incredible story of a ‘blood-stained crumb of a girl’ who went on to shape the world.
Marie or Little, as she is commonly referred to, is a fantastic character. Her voice is utterly unique, and her narration carries you away to the seedy streets of 18th century Paris. Little focusses predominantly on her earlier life, and the reader see her grow up and follows her story until the time she moves to London at the start of the 19th century. As a child, she becomes the apprentice of Dr Curtius – a doctor who replicates organs and other body parts in wax for use in the hospital by trainee physicians. Tiring of his trade, he turns his skills to the production of heads, Marie’s being one of his first creations. As news of his talent spreads, so more people arrive at his door wanting their own wax sculptures. Moving to Paris, Curtius and Marie rent rooms from the Widow Picot, who sees as opportunity to make money through Curtius and his sculptures, and to obtain a free servant in the form of Marie to whom she has taken an instant dislike.
There are some characters that you are so taken with that you go through a whole range of emotions during their story, and Marie was one such character for me. I laughed, I felt sad, and oh my fury when she was mistreated and taken advantage of by others, particularly Picot and Curtius, who was supposed to look after her. She learns to sculpt early on and shows quite a talent for it, but is forced into the role of a servant, for which she is never paid, by Picot. But Marie bides her time, she continues to practice her craft (secretly, of course) and shows tremendous resilience and determination to improve her lot in life. I thought that Marie’s narrative was fascinating throughout, and I loved the matter of fact tone with which she deals with her circumstances. Yes, there is emotion, but she doesn’t cry or feel sorry for herself, and I loved this about her.
While the Widow Picot does not come across as an entirely pleasant individual, she certainly has a head for business, and she helps to transform Curtius’s fledgling business into something more lucrative, moving them to larger, grander premises and obtaining ever better clientele. Her treatment of Marie is unfair, and yet it is because of Picot’s desire to obtain an ever-better station in life that Marie is sent to Versailles to live with and to tutor a minor royal. To me, Curtius seemed to be one of those individuals who is intelligent and good at what they do, but naïve in matters of business, and I think it’s fair to say that he would have been completely taken advantage of had it not been for Picot.
Little may be a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud, but it incorporates a huge amount of detail about the world in the 18th century. Medicine and the lack of understanding about the human body, political and economic stresses, and the vast gap between the rich and poor are all apparent, but Carey avoids turning Little into a history lesson, and the background information serves to bring the story to life successfully. This is a fascinating, fictionalised, account of a world-famous individual, and I highly recommend it.
Little will be published on by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Belgravia Books, on 4 October. Many thanks to the publisher for the early review copy.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐