Monday, 10 September 2012

The Pleasures of Men - Kate Williams

I was very excited to read this book. I had never heard of it before when I was wandering around Waterstones with friends after turning in our Masters dissertations. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up off the table and read the back cover, actually going "oh! OH!" as I read because it sounded so far up my alley that I probably should have already read it. The minute I finished The Historian, I knew I'd be starting this book. 

Instead of giving my typical ramble about the plot, I think I'll just copy the back cover blurb as it was so obviously interesting to me that day in the book store:

Spitalfieds, 1840. Catherine is an orphan, living in her uncle's rambling house in London's East End. Out on the streets, a murderer dubbed The Man of Crows is killing young women. As the city panics, Catherine grows obsessed by the dead girls, thinking they hold the key to uncovering the killer -- but in fact, she's already far closer than she realizes…

Doesn't that sound amazing?! I mean, it has so many things to play with: gothic setting, Victorian London, Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer, Victorian London women's society, head games with orphan girls. How could this book go wrong?

I really don't know how to describe this book. There are so many pros but quite a few cons, as well. The thing that really stuck out to me and that kept me from fully enjoying this novel was the writing style. It was incredibly confused. Thoughts would jump from paragraph to paragraph and return to things from the page before with no warning. Flashbacks appeared from nowhere and different narrators would show up for a few pages before you realized that all of it (probably) came from the imagination of Catherine. I kept waiting for this to be some sort of physical representation of perhaps some mental condition (ala schizophrenia) that Catherine may have but no, that was just the style. All in all, it made the actual details of the plot very hard to follow. At times, I honestly had no idea what was going on. I always had the general idea but sometimes it would be a momentary "wait, I thought she had run outside? Why is she in a parlor? Who's this person?"

I have to say, though, despite all the confusing ridiculousness of the writing style, the mood of the novel was expertly sketched. Perhaps because of all the confusing plot details and the haphazard writing style, there was a constant sense of the topsy-turvy dangerous world that Catherine inhabited. Nothing was as it seemed and everything was dark and seedy, everyone with a hidden agenda. Everything felt sinister in the best way possible. This was indeed a places where a man could walk hidden in the shadows, pulling women off the streets. One chapter in particular, set at a magic show, is particularly well done, encapsulating everything the novel wants to be in one well done scene.

Perhaps what I liked the most about this novel, however, was what the title implies. I'm the kind of person that tends to forget the title of the book she's reading while she's immersed. Logically, I know there's a connection behind the title and the work but I get distracted. Looking back after finishing the novel, however, really added a sense of depth to the work. Beyond the framework of the serial killer and Catherine's various problems, this is very much a novel about a young woman trying to find her place in a world where everything she does is dictated by men. Especially as the final act comes to a close in the ending chapters, the amount to which she has been a plaything in some big game of men becomes fully apparent. This becomes even more worrying when tied with something the author mentions in the historical notes in the back of who she based the 'Man of Crows' on. All of Catherine's problems are caused by whims of other people. As the novel winds down, the true horror are revealed and they are much more commonplace than a serial killer.

Overall, this novel plays with common ideas of gothic literature but is a bit uneven at times. I would have enjoyed it more if it were easier to follow but at the same time, the jumbledness of it added to its sense of danger. This isn't a book you can just breeze through because it takes a keen attention span to make sure you're not missing anything. However, if you manage to make it through, you will definitely feel like you came out the other side for the better.

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