Things In Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Canongate
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
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.
What I Say:
Sometimes, when you least expect it, you find a novel that absorbs you so completely, that you wish there were another hundred pages.
What I did know, was that everyone who had read Things In Jars, had loved it and could not stop recommending it. When I saw that my Bookish Sister, Bookish Chat had awarded it six stars (you can read her review here), I knew that Things In Jars was going to be very special.
Bridie Devine is the heroine, a woman who bursts into the novel and out of the pages with such passion and strength, and into the 1800’s of London’s streets and alleyways with such force that we know she is absolutely in charge of her destiny. She is working for the police – usually Inspector Rose and actually not officially, to help them solve crimes. Bridie is still smarting from her failure to reach her last victim in time, and is wary of getting involved with police work again. However, when she hears about the case of Christabel Berwick, the daughter of Sir Edmund Berwick, who has apparently been kidnapped, she is intrigued and cannot resist getting involved.
We, as readers, know from the very start of the novel that Christabel is not a normal child, and she seems to possess supernatural powers as well as very sharp set of teeth and a fondness for eating slugs and snails! She is taken from her bed in the middle of the night, but as Bridie starts to investigate, it is apparent that not only do lots of people seem very interested in Christabel, but that also no one is really as innocent as they may seem. We learn that Christabel is actually a merrow – a magical creature that has the ability to affect the emotions of a person who looks upon her, and that she can also influence the weather. This of course means that she is a highly valuable prize, who is being touted around until her kidnappers can find the highest bidders.
The London that we are presented with in Things In Jars, is one teeming with life, a world filled with fantastical sights, disorienting sounds and powerful smells that overwhelm and envelop us constantly. London is not presented at its tourist friendly, picture perfect best. This London is one of poverty and suffering, where things that might be ignored in other novels are pushed right in front of our faces so that all we can do is look at them and feel a sense of unease and discomfort. Bridie on the other hand knows exactly how to navigate it to get what she wants. Bridie is not alone in her endeavours to find Christabel. She has a maid called Cora, who is a seven foot woman with facial hair and a whole lot of attitude, as well as a fighter called Ruby Doyle who is a ghost, and only Bridie can see him. As the novel progresses, Ruby and Bridie form a powerful and nearly romantic bond which delights and also frustrates them, as they know they can never truly be together.
This is one of the many things I loved about Things In Jars – the fact that what could have been an ordinary ‘whodunnit’ is elevated way beyond any usual reading experience, and it makes you sit up and take notice from the very start. There is a sense of the magical, surreal and supernatural which weaves its way into the fabric of the story from the moment you turn the first page. As a reader you are pulled along with Bridie and her unrelenting determination to find Christabel, but Jess’ writing is so wonderful, that the magical elements seem to fit perfectly and are not at all out of place.
Along the way, Bridie and Ruby meet a plethora of interesting and unusual characters, all with a story to tell and more often than not, a score to settle. As Christabel is moved around the capital, and the kidnappers try to find a buyer, there is a sense of unease that starts to unsettle the natural order of the city. Birds start to congregate, the Thames starts to rise, and London’s inhabitants sense that all is not well with the world and unbeknown to them, Christabel is at the heart of it all.
Although there is lots of humour in the novel, it is a very real depiction of the grim reality for many of those living in London, far away from the wealth and privilege of the monied classes. Jess is not afraid to show the dark and often grim side of life. People and children are killed, a decapitation occurs, and we also see how awful it was for those who had to have operations in a time where there was no anaesthetics. It also shows us how difficult it was for women like Bridie, who are fiercely intelligent and refuse to be limited by society’s expectations and have to constantly battle to ensure that they are heard. This made me love Bridie even more, and at the heart of her character lies kindness and compassion and an overwhelming desire to find Christabel in time.
Things In Jars is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope, that delves into the dark underbelly of London and captures our attention and heart from the very first page. Bridie is a fierce and captivating character, who defies the limits that others place on her and is reassuringly comfortable with who she is and what she wants. Jess Kidd has boldly taken a familiar genre, unapologetically turned it on its head, added elements of the supernatural and magical and created a fantastic and vibrant world filled with amazing characters that quite simply that leaves us wanting more.
I loved it.