Originally published: April 2019
Author: Jess Kidd
Published by: Canongate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 416 pages
Reading dates: 21-26 March 2020
Our book club in March was a little different – the meeting had to happen over the Houseparty app as we are on lockdown in the UK and our usual pub venue was quite rightly shut! Quite a few members seemed to be struggling to focus on reading so dropped out but 6 of us managed to “meet” and discuss the book.
We chose Things in Jars because a few of us had been along to Steyning Book Shop earlier this year to hear Jess Kidd talk about her book and quite a few of us already had a copy. I’d heard so many great things about this book when it came out last year and I know Amanda over at Bookish Chat has being singing its praises. I was lucky enough to win a hardback copy from Just Another Page Turner so I was good to go!
Set in 1863 Victorian London, Bridie (short for Bridget) Devine is a tough female detective. Her last job didn’t go too well and her reputation is in tatters so she is intrigued when a new job comes her way – Sir Edmund Berwick employs Bridie to find his 6 year old daughter Christabel who was almost certainly being kidnapped. But Christabel isn’t an ordinary little girl (I won’t tell you any more as I don’t want to spoil it).
Bridie’s sidekick in this mystery is a dead champion boxer called Ruby Doyle, who when she sees him for the first time is clothed in just a top hat, boots and a pair of drawers. He also is covered in the most fantastic moving tattoos. When Bridie meets him in a graveyard at the beginning of the novel, he knows who she is but Bridie has no memory of every having met him before.
Set in the world of anatomists, crooked surgeons and showmen, this was a captivating read. There are a lot of characters but they are easy to follow. Bridie is obviously at the heart of the novel and I love her – she is brave and plucky and smokes a pipe! Ruby as her ghostly companion is gentle, kind and adores Bridie – he is also a little squeamish which is funny. We also have Cora Butter, Bridie’s 7 foot tall housemaid who looks after Bridie and sometimes gets involved in the case. The characters names are brilliant and so are their personalities.
Via flashbacks to 1841, we also hear about Bridie’s past, how she was acquired for just a guinea at the age of around 8 by Dr John Eames from her previous boss, a body snatcher who sold on corpses to surgeons to practice on. Having seen Bridie’s skills in action, Eames had high hopes for her to become a surgeons apprentice. She was for the most part happy in her new life, the maid’s were kind to her as was Eames. But Bridie soon hears of a dead daughter but also a son called Gideon, known by the staff to be cruel and dangerous.
The book treats the reader to a richly descriptive taste of Victorian London, distinctly gothic but with humorous elements. I really enjoyed the story and I enjoyed seeing how what happened in Bridie’s past linked to the mystery she was solving. My only criticism was perhaps it was a little long but the author’s imagination and research which must have taken place to create this story shone through. I’d highly recommend this and I look forward to reading more of Kidd’s work.
About the author:
Jess Kidd was brought up in London as part of a large family from county Mayo and has been praised for her unique fictional voice. Her debut, Himself, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2016. She won the Costa Short Story Award the same year. Her second novel, The Hoarder, published as Mr. Flood’s Last Resort in the U.S. and Canada was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2019. Both books were BBC Radio 2 Book Club Picks. Her latest book, the Victorian detective tale Things in Jars, has been released to critical acclaim. Jess’s work has been described as ‘Gabriel García Márquez meets The Pogues.’