A clever, fun book that does interesting things with form, provides a ripping yarn starring strong women and evil men and does everything it can to subvert the Patriarchical view of the world.
It requires a little patience at the beginning as the reader works out what is going on and how it’s being told but it repays the effort expended handsomely.
If “The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter” was a building and not a book, it would be neo-gothic, not gothic. I like neo-gothic buildings but I also recognise that they are different in intent, execution and context than the gothic originals.
English gothic architecture was not conscious of itself as gothic. To itself it was modern. The gothic cathedrals and churches offer a prayer to God based on a bedrock of ubiquitous religious belief that it’s hard even to imagine today. The English gothic castles are a display of defensive power and control imposed by men whose right to be at the top of the hierarchy was unquestioned. Both were something paid for by the very wealthy, built by master craftsmen, often over a lifetime and which defined the identity of the whole community, offering refuge, hope and the threat of punishment to all.
English neo-gothic architecture is defined by its self-consciousness. It’s a middle-class conceit meant to cloak wealth in romanticism and to dress the nouveau riche in the clothes of the establishment. It is aspirational, referential and designed neither to inspire prayer nor to deliver protection but to project an image. Sometimes that image is very beautiful but it’s never gothic.
“The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter” seems to me to be neo-gothic in that it takes the forms, styles and icons of gothic stories and uses them to for something new. This book imposes a sort of creative double vision on the reader: the gothic we expected to find overlaid on the modern that surprises us and either transforms or subverts the gothic, leading the reader somewhere new.
At first, I found myself slightly resistant to the book. I kept reaching for the gothic and being frustrated at finding no more than a shell.
I’ve adjusted now. This book is fundamentally modern. It reflects current sensibilities and interests. It hangs an LED light in an old stone building and illumines things previously unseen while creating new shadows. OK, that’s a little over the top but then, so is this book.
To enjoy it I’ve had to accept a different contract from the author than that offered by Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley. I’m not setting out to be horrified and perhaps enthralled by the monstrous. The author is offering me a journey through a curated, stage-dressed theme-park environment in which I’m invited to share in-jokes, reconsider old ideas. Yet this is not a pastiche.
The way of telling the story is perhaps the most important and most unique thing about the book. It rejects the convention of a tale told by a single male narrator, replacing it with a collective storytelling by a group of women who dispute and edit as they go. It seeks to present a consensus reached by collaboration which I think it works as a fun thing to read and takes a poke at the mansplaining patriarchy along the way. This innovative storytelling style, where all the women chip in and comment on the story as its being written, in a way similar to a character in a play breaching the fourth wall, is very engaging. It’s also really a rejection of the traditional style of gothic story-telling which focuses on a single male’s adventures, usually as he strives to achieve an objective or solve a puzzle.
Here’s an example where Mary interrupts Cat, who is writing the novel:
Cat, you’re the one who insisted that we tell our own parts of it and now you’re complaining that we’re interrupting the plot. This isn’t one of your thrillers. We’re trying to recount how we all came together, describe who we are, That’s not just the story of how we solved the White Chappel Murders. It’s the story of us.
I can’t remember the last time that I read a book that is focused on and written by (at least within the conceit of the book) believable women and where the women spend most of the time talking about themselves and each other rather than about the men around them.
It’s a sign of the humour of the book that all these women, remarkable as individuals but astonishingly strong as a group, are monsters.
The true monsters of the book are Gentlemen. As Catherine explains to the destitute fifteen-year-old girl who has taken refuge with the Magdalene Society after being importuned in the streets by men wanting to pay to have sex with her:
“Ah, Gentlemen. Best avoid them,” said Catherine. “I haven’t known a single one of them that didn’t want to ruin a girl in one way or another.”
The ways these attempts at ruin are wrought and the ways in which the women survive and help each other is the heart of the story.
Wrapping it in a gothic version of Victorian London with every fictional fantasy figure you’ve ever heard of and seasoning it with equal measures of humour and suspense makes it fun to read but doesn’t weaken the impact of the message.
I have only been thrown out of the story a couple of times when the illusion of Victorian London was fractured by the use of American English. Mrs Poole would not “go marketing”, she would “go shopping” and Sherlock Holmes would never say he had found “footprints on the sidewalk” when he meant that he’d found “footprints on the pavement”. It’s a shame that at least the editor or the English edition didn’t catch these.
I recommend the audiobook version, which Kate Reading delivers with skill and confidence. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.