Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric… This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’ Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’ I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself.
The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765. Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator. Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’ In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’ However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.
The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again. She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date. And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind. Without that, it is a very poor tally.’ Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.
Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases. This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield. Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation. Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’. Anne has a rather hard and cold interior. Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’
As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual. She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning. As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her… I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’ Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.
Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset. For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow. I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’ When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him. I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him. He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how. We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height. The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’ Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’ Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.
Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life. A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives. When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone. The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further. A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible. Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible. There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’
The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist. Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive. I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising. There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished. I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.