This new system, or I should say lack of system of letting myself write book reviews out of reading order is really working for me and has certainly got me writing a whole lot more than I would otherwise. I completed my 64th book of the year yesterday, so it looks like I’ll probably hit 75 in May (being part of a group called 75 Books in 2014 providing adequate motivation). I used to write reviews for every single book I read and then fell out of that practice last year because it was just too much work, and now allowing myself to write about books according to passing inspiration seems more feasible, especially considering I often set out to write just a word or two and then get caught up writing something that requires more thinking and editing, so I can now set it aside till inspiration strikes again. The following review has been in the works since I finished this book earlier this month (it was my 53rd). I hope to get it right, because I think this ARC definitely deserves to get great coverage!
“There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy. The room was papered in a pattern of winding branches, amongst which great green parent owls perched in identical courting couples. Beneath each pair, a trio of green owlets huddled, their sharp beaks slightly ajar. They sat between big, whistling green flowers with tiny white blossoms which made James think of mother-of-pearl buttons, the kind on Charlotte’s Sunday dress. When he was alone in the nursery, James thought he could hear the owls chatter together softly, like monkeys, scratching and scratching their claws against the endless green branches. But when Charlotte was there, they were quiet, because she had told them that if they did not behave, she would get her box of watercolours and paint out their eyes.”
Yorkshire, England, late 19th century. James Norbury and his beloved older sister Charlotte have spent their early years mostly left to their own devices at Aiskew Hall. Their father had left them shortly after their mother’s death and is constantly away on business, and they have been left vaguely under the care of Mrs Rowley the housekeeper; various governesses have come and gone, never staying for long, and it is left to Charlotte to teach James his letters. She is a very good teacher, and soon, by the age of six, James has taken to writing short stories and rhymes, which aren’t very good, though Charlotte encourages him by telling him he might write a whole book when he is grown up and living in a house in London. Then one day their father finally does comes home, but he is gravely ill and hidden away from them in his room under the care of a doctor, only to die a day or two following his arrival, after a brief interview with Charlotte, though he is too weakened to speak by that point. During that incident, James is hidden away in a secret cupboard, which Charlotte hasn’t been able to release him from on time so both could attend to their father, as they were interrupted in a game which they must keep the adults from knowing about, involving special “ordeals” to prove their bravery to one another. On their father’s death, the children are left in the care of their old aunt Mrs Chickering, with Charlotte attending to the old lady and James going off to school Years later, when he is about to finish his studies at Oxford, James decides he must live in London: “Thanks to a small legacy received some years ago, James had enough to live in relative comfort, without the need of pursuing a profession. Charlotte was sufficiently provided for. So he might still write, if he wanted. And he could live in London, where a writer ought to live and where things would happen. He would be a flâneur, wandering the streets, seeing everything, observed by none. That evening he wrote in his memorandum book, Life with a capital must be lived in the Capital, and was pleased with the sentiment.”
But he soon finds that his relatively modest means can’t afford him a decent living space, so that when an old school friend puts him in touch of another Oxford acquaintance, a young aristocrat named Christopher Paige, who is looking for someone to share rooms with in an elegantly appointed house, James jumps on the chance. The house is of the most genteel sort, near the National History Museum and belonging to a Mrs Morris, a lady of ‘reduced circumstances’. James has apprehensions about the handsome Paige, whom he knows to be a dissipated young man, always out on the town getting spectacularly drunk with his friends and bedding all the pretty women he can get his hands on. Nonetheless, they rent the rooms together and make a sort of odd couple, with James a hermit who stays in his rooms to work away at his epic romantic poetry, while Paige gets up to no good on a nightly basis. And then something happens between the two young men, a relationship James had certainly never envisaged, but which quickly consumes him. Christopher’s older brother figures out things are amiss and warns James off, and the pair plans to get away together overseas, only a violent attack changes everything, and James will never be the same again.
There is a very ancient private club called The Aegolius (denoting a species of small owls), which we find out about from the very first page of the book, in what appears to be a newspaper clipping titled “From Clubs of London, by Major Samuel Hobbs (London, 1890)” which I paraphrase from; this club reportedly bears the dubious distinction of being the most mysterious club of London, with the Aegolius’s character and affairs kept a profound secret, known only to its initiates. There are records of the club dating from 1705, though it is likely the club had been active many years previously. Unlike most clubs, there is no gambling or consumption of alcohol allowed on the premises, and it is not known for any political, literary or artistic activities or affiliations. Furthermore, there can only be up to fifty-two members at any one time, and becoming a member is exceedingly expensive and difficult (the Prince of Wales was notoriously turned down in 1785), and needless to say, no visitors are allowed. This club and a number of its members are at the heart of the narrative. What the connection with James can be is only revealed further on in the story, when James’s sister Charlotte, fearing something is amiss when she sends him telegrams that go unanswered, makes her way from Yorkshire to London to find James, and falls in with a pair of vigilantes composed of a middle-aged lapsed priest and a former rope walker; a beautiful young woman who often wears men’s garb, smokes like a chimney and can fight like a fiend. These skills, it seems, are necessary to perform their daily activities.
The novel is steeped in the macabre gothic horror tradition, which isn’t too surprising when we find out that Lauren Owen’s first attempts at writing as a teenager were Harry Potter fan-fiction, that she is a graduate of St Hilda’s, Oxford with an MA in Victorian Literature, and completing a PhD on Gothic writing and fan culture. She’s obviously done the right sort of reading and mental processing, because what she delivers here is a tour de force which is almost unbelievable for a first novel: a highly satisfying read, which borrows from some of the best literary influences of the Victorian age, weaving in intimations of famous crimes of the day, such as the unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper, and including a cameo of Oscar Wilde, who certainly has his place among the many influences at play in the story. All this in a complex, multi-layered narrative which nonetheless reads like the best sort of unputdownable mystery fiction, in a world of Dickensian proportions and characters, yet with a modern approach which, unlike the sort of fiction it borrows from, doesn’t shy away from describing the violence and horror in full, while at the same time clearly keeping in line with works of great literary merit. A must read? Like Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Tana French, and many others, I must say I certainly think so. I’ll also be eager to read what Lauren Owen comes up with next.