Gothic perils of a 'highly strung orphan'

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Lurid yarn fails to score a favourable impression with Nicky Pellegrino.

Historian Kate Williams' Victorian tale is a little too florid for our reviewer. Photo / Supplied
Historian Kate Williams' Victorian tale is a little too florid for our reviewer. Photo / Supplied

First, a quick history lesson. In Victorian times the low cost of paper allowed publishers to put out cheap, sensational fiction, known as "penny dreadfuls", to be enjoyed by the masses. These had plots filled with moral depravity and bloody murders and were considered rather scandalous at the time. The Pleasures Of Men, by Kate Williams (Michael Joseph, $37), is a pastiche of the penny dreadful - a Gothic horror that's risque, quickly readable and completely overwrought at times.

Set in 1840, it's the story of a highly strung orphan, Catherine Sorgeiul, who lives with her sinister uncle in London's East End. This is a city of seedy neighbourhoods filled with gin houses and brothels, poverty and danger. Mostly trapped indoors, Catherine leads a lonely, claustrophobic life with only her own imagination to entertain her. She becomes obsessed with a serial killer known as The Man Of Crows who strikes at young women while they are out walking the streets. The tragedy of her past leads Catherine to fancy she has an understanding of evil and soon she believes she is the only person who can recognise the murderer and put an end to the atrocities.

At first she contents herself with dwelling on the details of the crimes, imagining how the killer and his victims felt, intent on writing a book about him. Then she takes to the streets late at night, walking in his footsteps. But nothing is what it seems in Catherine's world and danger lies closer than she thinks.

There is a little of everything here: a whiff of lesbianism, bibs and bobs of Victoriana, lashings of sexual obsession and betrayal, a scattering of Dickensian villains, locked doors, mysterious markings on walls and secret rooms. The writing is feverish - words like heat, filth, blood are repeated constantly. At times reality and Catherine's ramblings become confused and, as the story progresses, the whole thing becomes increasingly lurid and hysterical.

UK author Williams is a historian with a successful book about the young Queen Victoria under her belt so we can take it that she knows the period. She has said that her aim with this novel was to expose the world the Victorians tried to hide beneath a veneer of respectability. The result is a garish, melodramatic version of history, one that might leave gentler readers in what I believe was known at the time as "a fit of the vapours".

Williams scored an astonishing million-pound contract for this blend of darkness, obsession and sexual creepiness. While it's an enjoyable curiosity, it doesn't scream bestseller to me and certainly isn't a patch on the book it begs comparison with - Sarah Waters' Tipping The Velvet. Were I the publisher who signed that million-pound deal I suspect I might be feeling a bit penny-dreadful myself by now.

- Herald on Sunday

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