‘The Butcher’s Hook’ is the debut novel by Janet Ellis. Published by Two Roads, it follows 19-year-old Anne as she attempts to escape the confines of Georgian London. I know there’s been quite a lot of buzz about this book already, but I wanted to give my two cents anyway. Sorry for the late review by the way – I had read it for the Stratford Literary Festival (report here!) but I haven’t had the time to write up a proper review until now.
I hadn’t heard of Janet Ellis before (what can I say, I didn’t grow up watching Blue Peter) so I really didn’t have any preconceptions going in. Historical fiction is a genre that I dabble in, so in my efforts to read more debut novels, this seemed pretty perfect for me. And I have to say, I was really impressed by it! It wasn’t an intricate novel, but it was an interesting one, with a deliciously dark tone.
Anne was an extremely interesting and twisty character, whose point-of-view I enjoyed greatly. I can honestly say that I have never come across a character quite like her, which was so refreshing. She was in no way a stereotypical eighteenth century woman, but she wasn’t a modern one either…she was entirely new. She’s violent, yet is brought to tears by very certain violent situations. She loves and she hates with such fervour – I have to be honest, I’d be quite wary of her if she was real! I never considered the fact that the moral compass of a sheltered young woman in the eighteenth century could be so skewed, but I loved it. When put in a situation of volatile first love (and lust), Anne’s actions also make a very weird sort of sense.
Her love interest, Fub, was pretty well fleshed-out. It’s never quite clear to me what Fub’s motives are in taking up a relationship with Anne – after all, he is a butcher’s boy and she is a (sort-of) gentleman’s daughter. I don’t think it is love, which makes the so-called romance that much more interesting to read. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about class, just the bald fact that they couldn’t conceivably be together. There was definitely room for exploration of that theme, but I didn’t think the book was lacking because of that.
What I was most struck by was the general theme of blood. For most of the novel, it is described so clinically, even cleanly – the dispassionate description of the slaughter of a cow really highlights how cruelly Anne perceives the world. In contrast, there is also the pain and intimacy that comes with periods. The nuances of the blood really summed up the book for me, actually. Fiery, cool, violent, and passive, all at once. Not a book that you pick up any old day, to be sure.
In all, I would highly recommend ‘The Butcher’s Hook’. It is historical fiction, a dark look at morality, and a bloody good read.