Book Review

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

things in jars

I absolutely loved Jess Kidd’s previous novel, The Hoarder, and I was thrilled to receive an early copy of her latest novel, Things in Jars ahead of its publication in April.

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 fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. 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.

Things in Jars is an enchanting Victorian detective novel that explores what it is to be human in inhumane times.

Things in Jars is populated by an outstanding cast of characters.  Bridget (Bridie) Devine is fantastic.  “A small, round upright woman of around thirty” she is a female detective, and I was instantly smitten with her, and I loved her bold and no-nonsense attitude.  A small number of chapters are given to Bridie’s backstory, explaining how she left Ireland and eventually came to London.  These chapters, though brief, give wonderful insight into her character, and show how she came to acquire her knowledge of science and medicine, as well as her earliest attempts at finding and using evidence to solve a mystery.  Her role as a detective, taking on the cases that the police don’t have the time or desire to investigate, seems a natural outcome for this inquisitive child.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is a fascinating one, but one that comes as a surprise to Bridie when she is hired to investigate the disappearance of Christabel Berwick.  Bridie is still reeling from what she considers to be a personal failure in her last case, and she is determined to do better here.  Even for nobility – Christabel’s father is a baronet – Christabel’s childhood is a strange one, and before her kidnapping she was kept under lock and key, with very few people aware of her existence.  Ostensibly, at least.  Keeping a secret in a houseful of servants is nigh on impossible, and Bridie very quickly uncovers rumours as to Christabel’s unusual nature and why she was kept isolated from the rest of the house.  I like that, throughout the novel, Bridie keeps an open mind.  Some of the tales she is told are fantastic – in the fanciful sense of the word – and yet she is always willing to listen, despite her scepticism, seeking out the grain of truth in the tales she is told.

The Victorian era was a strange one, and Kidd has perfectly captured the juxtaposition of science and superstition of the time.  The reader hears of Darwin, and witnesses the latest developments in science and medicine, and yet throughout the novel this comes up against the folkloric elements that are a trademark of Kidd’s novels.  The inequalities of the time are also apparent, with her strong female cast largely ignoring what is expected of them.  Bridie often masquerades as a man in trousers and whiskers to gain entry to places where women aren’t welcome, and it’s clear that women are beginning to demand more than tradition grants them.

Kidd is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors whose work I would pick up with little knowledge of the contents.  With Things in Jars, she has shown that she can turn her hand to different types of novel, yet still deliver an enchanting story in her beautiful prose.  More, please.

Things in Jars will be published by Canongate on 4 April.  Many thanks to Katie Huckstep and the publisher for the early review copy.

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