It’s clear from the beginning: one might long for escape from this narrative, might opt for a bloody end rather than endure more misery.
“No one but a fool could look so happy in a miserable house, could they? The mice here probably throw themselves on the traps for a quicker end.”
But Anne Jaccob’s life in 1763 London is sketched with external details designed to assemble interior worlds, dark and uncomfortable places.
We are meant to understand something elementary about our heroine, when Janet Ellis determines to spend more time describing the butcher’s shop than many other locales in the novel.
“Creatures that could never in life have shared the same field, for they would have fought or cowered, have had no choice but to jostle close together in sullen deathly silence. The smell is so strong that it is almost visible, a great sour reek, pricked with a sharp rang. Gobbets of blood stick to the sawdust on the floor; they look solid enough to thread on a ribbon like beads.”
In the beginning, substantial narrative is devoted to characterization, backstory and atmosphere, but the novel’s second half is more scenic and plot-driven.
Less of this: “I am describing the passage of some two years, I suppose, but there were few anniversaries to punctuate the passing months.”
And more long reflective passages like this: “‘Do not let Fub love that girl,’ I say to my plaster companions, those several saints. ‘How can she be to him what I am? Her button mouth would not open wide and take in his bone to suck at it for the marrow. She would not let his finger go inside her or his tongue either. She would be as solid and smooth below as china.’
This excerpt illustrates the use of direct language which feels more contemporary than many works of fiction set in Georgian England (there is also, for instance, much talk of menstruation, which fits with the bloody themes).
There is a wickedly playful note to the tale. “We sound playful. We are not playing.” There is something vicious about it, too. “He must intend Onions to be my wedding present. He would make an oddly-shaped parcel. I should not be able to keep from shrieking in horror when I undid the ribbons and discovered him inside.”
Some themes feel remarkably modern. Like the approval of a parent: “It is the moat of my father’s constant disapproval that I try and avoid, for it wets so much and stinks when it dries.” Or first love (first lust): “He has said my name. I wish it had more syllables to keep it in his mouth for longer.”
But all the overt parallels with the lives of modern readers only serve to emphasize Anne Jaccob’s unpleasantness. “Sudden as a lightning strike, I have the thought that if they all died, together, I would not mourn. My father, Evelyn, even my mother, every last one of them, I would see them set sail in a ship that I knew would sink or watch them fall into a hold that droped them down to the earth’s molten core and not mind. A plague could ravage or a stampede of mad bulls flatten them, it would be all the same to me. I wait for guilt to nibble at these thoughts and make me regret them, but it does not come.”
And the story, too, is uncomfortable: The Butcher’s Hook depends upon misunderstandings and misrepresentations. “How strangely easy it is to lie. Like a parasite on its host, my falsehoods take their nourishment from being believed and gain more strength.”
Anne is not the only dissatisfied woman in the tale.
“Love grows where it will and as it wants.”
“If you feed it, it does. It’ll latch on like a parasite and be all the more difficult to remove.” Jane sounds so sour that I have to look at her to make sure she is not replaced by an imposter. “I’ve said enough,” she says. “You know the truth of what I say.”
Parasites and imposters, sour reeks and sharp rangs, hooks and blades: these accumulate throughout the pages of The Butcher’s Hook but ultimately Janet Ellis is aiming to leave readers with a particular taste in their mouths.
“Artists lie about our last moments, painting them decorous and noble. The daintily speared leak only drops of blood and the elderly drift into a peaceful sleep. It is no wonder that they depict it thus, the truth is so much uglier. From what I’ve seen, Death come with suppuration, protestation and no grace. It makes a great deal of noise, too, and this man’s last breaths are loud, sputtering coughs and squeaks. There is a strange odour coming off him: he is already rotting.”
Though drenched in the visceral, Anne’s story feels like a bloody romp a good deal of the time, although the swell of sensory detail as the novel progresses might nudge some readers into abandonment.
I hear there is a quicker end if one but throws herself upon the trap. (See: we were warned.)