Little Bones by Janette Jenkins

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Little Bones by Janette Jenkins

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A Victorian Vera Drake, as a young malformed girl becomes an abortionist's assistant.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0701181949

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While this might sound like the afterlife of a brilliant and unlikely cabaret mimic, it's not. It's a rich, evocative and engaging novel set in the last years of Victoria's reign, in the depths of her darkest London. Fate - and being abandoned by, in turn, her mother and older sister - leaves Jane Stretch living with and working for a doctor and his lumpen, housebound wife. Jane is alternatively called an 'unfortunate' and a 'cripple' for her disabilities and distorted frame, but she has enough bookish intelligence to pass herself off as an assistant to the doctor, who only ever does one operation - abortions, for music hall artistes. The plot is evidently gearing up to reveal how dangerous such a criminal business might be, for the both of them.

The notable factor of this novel is Jenkins' style. It's not over-the-top detailed, but there is a finer, more nuanced approach to flinging details and minutiae into her telling. Smells, colours, and all other senses are evoked where we might not expect them. Something very trivial gets two adjectives where we might assume one. With her rather clipped, vintage narration it's a great way to see the characters in all their surroundings, from the grubby house of the doctor that Jane takes up residence in, to the audience she shares the stalls with when given a ticket to the music hall.

Counter to that, unfortunately, is the plotting, which might show the book up a little. There's a good turn in back-story, as for a lot of the running time the chapters alternate between Jane's past and present. Yet those past segments have nothing within them to strictly impact on the present, despite showing successfully how her nicely turned character came to be. On the whole the current time story seemed a little too slight, and the ending too rushed.

Still, Jenkins does get us into her London very successfully. Research into fabrics, locations, attitudes and more has obviously been done, and yet shows up very lightly. She evokes the character of Jane very well, with a sort of willingly hard-working, yet bemused approach hardened by years of neglectful attitude from countless others. Her story, due to her personality and the wave of enveloping intricacy, is, whatever its small flaws, still worth investigating.

Take away the music hall, and swap it with fortune-telling, and you're in the world of Cross My Palm by Sara Stockbridge which is worth a look for fans of novels in the Victorian era. We can also recommend Little People by Jane Sullivan.

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