The Exhibitionists by Russell James

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The Exhibitionists by Russell James

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A busy fusion of historical fact and fiction as three children grow up in Victorian London unaware of their beginnings against a background of artistic innovation. You'll smile, cry and sidle to the edge of your seat whilst accidentally absorbing interesting bits of info whether you're interested in art or not.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: October 2012
Publisher: G-Press Fiction
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780950112

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On one particular London night in 1834 three children start a journey that will mould their futures. Newly born Maddy is abandoned in Mrs Cuthbertson's establishment (a thinly veiled baby farm) causing Maddy to spend years looking for the reasons that led her there. Baby Sam is fished out of the Thames and grows with a burning desire to uncover the truth, shaping his career as a journalist. Meanwhile Hannah is conceived that night by two people fated to live lives that don't coincide, until…

As the children grow, the city around them hosts exhibitions that reverberate throughout history: the Royal Academy exhibition that introduces the Pre-Raphaelites to the world, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the competition for artwork to embellish the rebuilt Houses of Parliament and the exhibition of accomplished art lecturer Benjamin Haydon, remembered for reasons of tragedy rather than triumph.

Russell James has built a career on writing such crime fiction as No One Gets Hurt so why the shift to historical fiction? Actually, it's not so different when his approach is considered. He sees his novels as …vignettes, pivotal moments in the lives of the underclass which is exactly how The Exhibitionists has been written.

We're whisked from one scene to another as the children develop from birth to late teens, becoming intertwined with the Victorian artistic movers and shakers. We're almost in the care of an unseen tour guide, feeling the pain and confusion of poor Maddy one moment and witnessing an argument between photographic pioneer, Beard and the painter, Turner the next. The characters both actual and fictional, are all tangibly believable, even including a dusting of Dickens in the case of the tragic, Micawberesque Haydon for whom flashes of sadness remain even after the book has been read.

We're there when Turner paints the Temeraire and when the teenaged Alexandrina Victoria is told that she must exchange her first name for the title 'Queen'. (Although they put it slightly differently at the time.)

Each block of chapters covers a certain year showing how the cultural history develops alongside the development of Sam, Maddy and Hannah in such a convincing way that I had to read the novel with a search engine handy to separate those who were real from those originating in Russell James' imagination. (Notes at the back would have been nice for this but if you have access to a computer or decent library, it's not a huge setback.)

The little factoids that, to me, are the cherry on the top of good historical fiction are also there: William Holman Hunt (who painted The Light of the World now in St Paul's Cathedral) had a typo on his birth certificate. He should have been Hobman Hunt. Turner kept cats to stop the mice eating his work. Millais won a Royal Academy prize at the age of 12, rat fighting was a lucrative sport… the list goes on.

My only mild grumble is that The Exhibitionists feels like two books jostling for prominence under the same cover. The artists were so fascinating they deserved a book of their own and I also wanted to spend more time with the children, feeling that their development was sometimes interrupted rather than enhanced by having to leave them to go back to the artists. (I know – I'm a contrary oosit sometimes!) However this is a minor gripe and I could bore you for ages recounting scenes and nuances whilst never running out of enthusiasm myself; the sign of a good read. Indeed, if Russell James is 'a cult' as one critic termed him, he deserves the wider audience that The Exhibitionists will attract. And then perhaps he could write some more historical fiction/faction fusion… please?

A special thank you to G-Press Fiction for sending us a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and would like another novel based on an artist, complete with a 'solved' mystery, try A Name in Blood by Matt Rees.

Buy The Exhibitionists by Russell James at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Exhibitionists by Russell James at

Buy The Exhibitionists by Russell James at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Exhibitionists by Russell James at


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