What an unusual book! Not having read anything by Jess Kidd before, I didn’t know what to expect from this new Victorian mystery, but I immediately fell in love with the playful writing and imaginative plot. I knew as soon as the ghost of a tattooed boxer arose from a tomb in Highgate Cemetery that this was going to be no ordinary detective novel.
The story takes place in 1863 and our heroine is Bridie Devine, a former surgeon’s apprentice from Dublin who, since arriving in London, has built a new career for herself as a private investigator. At the beginning of the novel, Bridie – ‘A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap’ – is asked to look into the disappearance of Christabel Berwick, a little girl whose strange physical characteristics make her a valuable prize for those who collect curiosities and oddities. With the ghost of boxer Ruby Doyle by her side, Bridie must try to find Christabel before she becomes a ‘thing in a jar’.
Things in Jars is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. It reminded me, in different ways and at different times, of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Essex Serpent and Once Upon a River, but written in a style that makes it all Jess Kidd’s own. Bridie is a wonderful character; I admired her for her independence and intelligence but had a lot of sympathy for her as well, as the story of her troubled childhood unfolds in parallel with the 1860s one. Her romance with Ruby (as far as you can have a romance with a man who isn’t alive) is both moving and mystifying. Ruby claims to have known her for years, but Bridie can’t remember him. Who is he – and why has he come into her life again?
The secondary characters are excellent too, all described with Dickensian detail, from Bridie’s seven foot tall housemaid Cora Butter with the ‘unnerving glare’ to her landlord, the elderly bell maker Mr Wilks, who has the look of ‘something that has been carefully varnished and then put away for a long time’. The descriptions of London – sometimes written from the perspective of a raven flying over the rooftops – wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel either:
The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned. Slick on the rolling level of rising currents and down-draughts, she turns her head, this way and that. To her black eyes, as blacked as pooled tar, London is laid out – there is no veil of fog or mist or smoke-haze her gaze cannot pierce!
Below her, streets and lanes, factories and workhouses, parks and prisons, grand houses and tenements, roofs, chimneys and tree tops. And the winding, sometimes shining, Thames – the sky’s own dirty mirror.
As for the mystery of Christabel’s disappearance, it really takes second place to the setting and the characters and the humour, but it was interesting enough to keep me gripped until the end, wondering what the little girl’s fate would be. I also enjoyed the way legends of the mythical Irish being known as the merrow were worked into the plot.
I would love Jess Kidd to write another book about Bridie Devine but, failing that, I will have to look for her previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. Although they sound very different from this one, I am looking forward to reading more of her work!
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.