Review Blog

Apr 28 2016

The butcher's hook by Janet Ellis

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Two Roads Books, 2016. ISBN 9781473625129
(Age: Adult - Mature readers) Georgian England. Gender roles. Sexual maturation. Violence. Murder. Grief.
This is not a Jane Austen-style gentle and romantic exploration of life in Georgian England, but the voice of the central character Anne is full of the pain of a young and intelligent girl who lives in a patriarchal world and lives with limited opportunity - except that offered by a man. The 'butcher's hook' catches her, whichever way it, or she, is turned, and as we read we feel the slow and inexpressible pain of powerlessness at the hands of others. Anne's early family life is scarred by the repeated loss of her siblings, either in miscarriage or early death, and there is a heaviness that pervades her family life. In a world before good medical knowledge and care, and even less psychological support for the grieving, we are led into a series of overwhelming situations and potential problems as Anne matures into a woman of marriageable age and attempts to independently explore her growing interests. Her intelligence was at one time fostered by a family 'friend', who displayed interesting methods of arousing her curiosity about the world, but his means of explaining her questions about life and birth change her direction for the future and awaken more than understanding. A connection to the local butcher's apprentice rapidly escalates, and her means of clearing her path to enable her desires to be fed reveals more than just her lust for the young lad. The story is tragic and macabre, and displays none of the lightness of an Austen tale.
The background of the Georgian world, with its distinct social and gender class separations and the mire of poverty always in the background, is a fascinating setting for this absorbing tale of the unfolding carnal and worldly sensibilities of an adolescent woman who transforms in a way that we wish we could halt. This is not a gentle coming-of-age book for teenagers. And for those who might be squeamish and a little uncomfortable in a 21st century butcher's shop, there is a raw and visceral unpleasantness in imagining the equivalent literary dismembering of life in the 1760s. The quality of the prose will keep you reading though, despite some unpleasantness along the route.
Recommended for Mature readers only. (Adult text)
Carolyn Hull

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