I won a copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways. I always feel badly about not being able to heap praise on one of these. I enjoyed the beginning… It’s a powerful idea – two young children left on their own in 1842 London, their comfortable early life contrasting hideously with being reduced to prayer and scavenging to get by on the filthy, terrifying waterfront.
The children – Maggie, 13, and her little brother, ten-year-old Thomas – are alone in the world because their father, a Chartist activist, was caught, convicted, and transported, and their mother was broken by the stress of it and died. At the beginning of the book the kids decide they should try to locate Mr. Turner, mentioned in their father’s letters as someone who could help the family. Why did their mother never go to him? Pride? Regardless, it’s now find this gentleman or turn to a life of crime, or die, and the two set off into the mean streets of London.
The streets aren’t the only things that are mean: the children are trapped by a group of very young thieves straight out of Oliver Twist and no matter how hard they try can’t seem to escape them; though they have nothing themselves, it’s their own selves which have the potential to be valuable to the group, as Maggie can participate in a seduction-robbery of some rich drunken toff. Finally, though, they find the old gentleman, only to see him kidnapped by scoundrels and end up right back with the street gang … after which they and one of the gang, Jack, are taken up by a sweet little old lady and the story goes from Oliver Twist to Hansel and Gretel.
The beginning, as I said, had some hope in it. It was a good depiction of the vicious circle of homelessness: you have no place to wash and nothing clean to wear, so “decent” folk, including the police, automatically assume the worst of you and want nothing but to be shut of you, and so you and your clothes become dirtier and more ragged, and any opportunity for anything better slips further and further away. But before long I was just utterly confused as to what story this was trying to tell. The story from Maggie’s point of view is intercut with her dreams in the present tense – effectively nightmarish – and also bits and pieces the reader could not otherwise know from assorted letters, articles, and other papers from other sources. A good idea – but unfortunately a bit scattershot in execution.
The middle of the book, as I mentioned, takes a wild fairy tale turn as the kids are scooped up by a Countess who promises to give them everything they could possibly imagine and then some, but who just might not be as benevolent as she seems. It was a bizarre turn for the story to take, and almost trivialized by being a detour, popping up a good ways in and wrapped up tidily well before the end in a muted climax that featured a strange sort of deus-ex-machina.
I very quickly lost patience with the children’s father, Thomas Power. You’ve got a cause and a fire in your belly and you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good? Dandy. Go for it – unless you have a fragile wife and two young children who, if they lose you, will be reduced to abject penury. All I could think every time the narrative cut in one of the father’s letters was How dare you? How dare you put yourself into a position in which you abandon your family to almost certain death? How could you? Whether it was thoughtlessness, overconfidence in himself and his wife and Turner, or blind zeal, the end result was his wife’s grim and bitter death and the deep suffering of his children, and there was no amount of yay-he’s-a-hero-for-the-Cause that was going to alleviate that. And, really, I don’t know much more about the Chartists (or being prisoner in Van Diemen’s land) than I did before I read the book.
The reason the children’s mother earned my anger is something of a spoiler, so we’ll just take it as read. It’s the least of my problems with the book. It could be argued that the fact that I was angry with the characters means they were real enough to spark an emotion in me; it could also be argued that they were written as idiots and it was their thoughtless stupidity that made me angry. Which – well, actually, that means they do in fact have a lot in common with a lot of real people, so – go them.
It was the writing, both in its rambliness and its grim and bitter need for editing, which made me a bit angry with the writer. I was annoyed with the weird left turn into lurid sensationalism; I was much more annoyed that the children quite simply did not speak like children. On the death of their mother:
Maggie (13 years old): “She had the churchyard cough and suffered terribly for a while. We were thrown out of our lodgings because the sewing work she brought home didn’t amount to much, and we couldn’t pay the rent. I tried to help, but I think she got so very tired with the illness, and she couldn’t keep up with the work. We then found shelter in an old fisherman’s hut down by the river, but her cough grew worse. She was miserable and full of despair. She hated how her life had turned out and hated that we were forced to take up begging…”
Thomas (10 years old): “Right after she died, I used to think I saw her face everywhere. Every woman of her age seemed to have her face. … I used to see her face around the market, pushing barrows, scavenging around the waterside, even walking the streets in fancy clothes. I’d stop and stare at all these ladies. But after a few seconds of staring, I knew it couldn’t be her – and the real face of the woman I was looking at would appear once more.”
These are not the words of children, even well-brought-up Victorian children. Now and then there was a childish grammatical error or something of the sort, but largely the kids never sounded like kids. The dialogue of the urchin Jake, who had had no education whatsoever and was (I think) supposed to be a proper little Cockney brat, differed very little in the main from the examples above, though now and then there was a text-stopping insertion like “take a butchers” – from zero to full-on Cockney and back again in a sentence, which brought me to a screeching halt every time as I tried to adjust. Everyone – from the French Countess to Cockney Jack to Blake to Mr. Turner – sounded pretty much the same, except for occasional dropped-in stereotypical words.
Did I mention the two main kids were well-brought-up Victorian children? Does the line (spoken by Maggie) “There might be blood, guys” sound Victorian? “Guys”?? Really?
Most of all, though, because it should have been the easiest thing to fix, I was annoyed with the slipshod spelling, grammar, and punctuation:
- “Say what you want, Gentlemen” (why the capital?)
- “Like outlaws they laid low” (what is a low, and where did they lay it?)
- “Eventually, however, he came to heal.” (Should, in case it isn’t clear, be “came to heel” – not even getting into the connotations of the phrase)
- “the dinning room” (*flinch*)
- “those hated, London streets” (why the comma?)
- “Maggie wondered around the empty house” (yes, it should be “wandered”: not the same word)
- and my favorite: “‘What about, Jack?’” (which wasn’t a query to Jack about what he might be referring to, but was supposed to be a query about him: “What about Jack?”)
Say what you want, Gentlemen, about nit-picking, but truly, really, honestly – commas are important. In that last example the comma creates a completely different sentence from what was intended. “You know what I mean” just doesn’t cut it when this is something people are expected to pay money for – there’s really no excuse for it. I just found an old review of mine, and I’m recycling a line from it: when there are as many nits as this, it’s hard not to pick them.
No, wait – my favorite erratum might have actually been this, from one of Maggie’s nightmares: “Then up bobs a decapitated leg to the surface”. How, exactly, do you decapitate a leg? I think I actually gave a little cry of dismay at that one.
There were plenty of places where I found the choice of words questionable, such as:
- Referring to two men who just viciously beat up an apparently nice old man as “the younger gentlemen” (Is “gentlemen” really appropriate here?)
- “It informed them that their package of hope was lost” (– Er?)
- “Marie … thrust him into her arms to comfort him” (can you thrust someone into your own arms?)
And there was one place where I just sat and laughed for a second. The Countess requires of the children a promise that they won’t go to the folly. “How would we go about getting over there?” asks young Thomas. She tells him, in detail. Guess what happens.
A quick internet search doesn’t turn up any record of the emotional story of Marie Antoinette and Jacques (which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or wasn’t said to have happened). The other major historical character besides Marie Antoinette (with whom she was bizarrely yoked as a pair of heroines for the Countess) is real, but her background is never made explicit in the story; I don’t know if the reader is just supposed to know, or is intended to go searching. Author’s notes at the end of the book might have been added value here. It needed something. With a lot of work and a lot of cleaning up and a clearer focus, this could be good – there were places that weren’t bad, like the genuinely creepy nightmares.
I think that with some strong guidance and – do I really need to say a masterful editor? – this could have been a fine book. As it is, I, sadly, have a bit of regret for the time I spent on it.