READER! – Good-day to you!
And good-morrow, too! for our acquaintance is destined to be long. We are sure of it. We see it in your eye –
Who is Thomas Peach? Why has he fled London to take up residence in a quiet country village in Somerset? What is in the locked chest he keeps hidden beneath the stairs? Why does Mrs Peach never leave her bedroom and why is she not permitted visitors? Does she even exist – and if not, who is it that Thomas talks to at night, when the curious maidservant stands with her ear to the bedroom door?
These are the questions our narrator, an unnamed person who describes themselves as a necromantic historian, sets out to answer in this strange and fascinating new novel by the equally mysterious Jas Treadwell. By the end of the book, we have answers to these questions, as well as some others that are raised along the way, but what makes this such an intriguing and entertaining read, in my opinion, is not the plot so much as the style in which the book is written. Not everyone will agree, of course; I think whether or not you will enjoy Thomas Peach could depend on how you feel about the sort of book it is parodying – the 18th century novel.
Set in 1785, the book imitates the fiction of that time, with the narrator speaking directly to the reader, commenting on what has happened and what is about to happen and providing footnotes where they feel further information is necessary. If you’ve read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you will have an idea of what I mean, although the narrator in this book is much more intrusive and is there with us through every turn of the page. Chapter Ten, for example, begins like this:
Like the rustic, who closes his eyes at sun-set, after his day of wholesome toil, and wakes again with the dawn, we omit the night altogether, by the simple method of opening our new chapter upon the following day.
This is probably the kind of writing you either like or you don’t; it does require some patience, as those 18th century authors never used one word when they could use ten! Treadwell draws heavily on the literature of the period and there are lots of references to Samuel Richardson’s huge 1748 epistolary novel Clarissa (which I was glad I had read, as it meant I knew what the narrator was talking about without having to rely on the footnotes!) as well as books by other authors such as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett. You don’t actually need to have read any of these books, but a familiarity with some of them will add to your experience of the novel.
Due to the leisurely pace of the novel and all the diversions and digressions, Thomas Peach’s story unfolds very slowly – and when his secrets do eventually begin to be revealed, I felt that beneath the clever writing, the plot was less complex, less magical and less satisfying than I had expected it to be at first. Still, I enjoyed meeting Thomas Peach and the other characters, particularly Clary, a young woman about whom I can’t really say anything at all without spoiling the surprise! Although I couldn’t read a lot of books like this as the style would quickly become irritating, this one kept me entertained.
Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.
Book 38/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.