Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace

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Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rachael Spencer
Reviewed by Rachael Spencer
Summary: A really interesting first novel by an author I'm fascinated to read more of. Not perfect, but excellently dark and historically intriguing, I think this is a good read if you like to try something a little bit different.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 210 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Cillian Press Limited
ISBN: 9781909776104

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Digging Up Milton appealed to me because from the description it sounded like something a little bit different. I like that it is dark but yet not entirely serious, and I always appreciate it when an author tries to write in a different way, or give a book an individual voice.

In Digging Up Milton, we are introduced to 18th century London at its dirtiest and nastiest. Full of coffins, bodies and grime, we are see to Cripplegate in London, where Lizzie Grant digs graves in the filth for a living. We follow the story of Lizzie's plan to become someone using the body of the great poet, Milton, which has just been uncovered during works at St Giles Church.

For me, the narrative style got off to a little bit of a shaky start. I felt somehow that the author was trying just a touch too hard to fit the speech into the time period, a fact made more noticeable as it is written from a first person point of view. This might sound like an unfair criticism, but I think there is a balancing act between keeping it in period and still having a flow in narration which makes it enjoyable to read. There were, for me, a few too many exclamations of 'quoth I!' in the first chapter to get completely stuck in to the story. However, once I got onto chapter two, I thought it really found its pace and style and it became a much more enjoyable read altogether.

I always think there's a spot of danger in writing in the first person, but on the whole it works well here, adding a more light hearted tone to a book which could be much darker than it is. Lizzie is a compelling character, and I think we get a really well rounded picture of her as a person early on in the book, which only goes to make the 'Postscript to the Reader' an even more interesting addition to the novel as a whole.

I think there might have been room for a little more setting up of a few details earlier on in the book, as Lizzie tells us that she will come back to certain points later in the story. This device works well the first time, but by the third time it feels a bit less like a tease for things to come, and more like an overused writing device. This might be picky of me, but it grated after a while, though it did make more sense once I found out the story was supposedly being dictated and once the plot gained some momentum, gaps were soon filled in and it all felt like a smoother narration.

I love the intermingling of historical fact and pure fiction, as outlined in the historical note which precedes the text, and I definitely get the sense that Wallace really knows what she is talking about, giving the whole thing a nice feeling of layers and intrigue. I think historical London is never going to be a boring topic to write about, and this particular story was a good way to access it.

A point which I found particularly interesting was the effect the famous body had on those who see it right at the start of the novel; reducing men to the pulling apart of a corpse with a complete lack of respect or dignity. I think this, along with Lizzie's initial thought to start charging for entry, is excellent because it not only sets the tone of dark, bleak humour early on, but I think it nicely parallels a modern day attitude towards 'celebrity' in a way that adds an interesting and accessible layer to the novel.

Overall I enjoyed reading this novel. It was different and it was interesting, and I never lost sight of wanting to know what was going to happen next, or how everything was going to turn out for Lizzie in the end. I always think a novel which makes you want to immediately plunge yourself into a bit of research afterwards must have done a pretty good job, and of course I have found myself googling various aspects of this novel in order to find out some further historical facts. So, a job well done!

This being her first novel, I look forward to seeing what Jennifer Wallace writes next because this story is so individual that I can't imagine what her next work would be, and for me that is always an exciting start to a writing career.

Another book that is both about a historical London and also a bit off the wall is The Revolutions by Felix Gilman, so why not give that a go if you're looking for something new?

Buy Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Digging Up Milton by Jennifer Wallace at Amazon.com.


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