The Butcher’s Hook is the debut novel of actress and presenter Janet Ellis. Ellis is known in her native England primarily for presenting children’s programme Blue Peter in the mid ’80s. For Ellis’ fans then, The Butcher’s Hook must come as a dark shock – it’s a dark and twisted gothic tale set in 18th century Georgian London.
London, in the summer of 1763 is a pulsating, sweaty place. Our protagonist, Annie is a quietly passionate, desperately unhappy girl. Though blessed with well to-do parents, her father is a bully, her mother worn thin with multiple miscarriages, and the whole family wretched with grief for Annie’s not long dead three-year-old brother. In fact, it is this searing love for her dead brother that shines a light on Annie’s humanity.
The novel opens with the birth of a new, healthy baby finally achieved. But it’s only a girl, a fact which none of the family relish.
This then, sets a clear tone for us to understand Annie’s life: girls are without value. While Annie, with her sharp mind, does secure tutorage, her male tutor betrays her, so that doesn’t last. But Annie’s learning cannot cease and with her keen interest in the natural world, in bugs and death, it is little wonder then that she falls, and falls hard, for Fug, the butcher’s boy.
Fug, Annie believes will not fail her like the other men in her life. Indeed, Fug may not be traditionally learned, but there are many things he has to teach her, the ways of passion, along with another most valuable skill – butchery itself.
The Butcher’s Hook’s plot follows a well-worn path – forbidden love that crosses a social divide, marriages to other people are promised and the lovers are forced to take desperate measures; however, there twists in the formula and gristly scenes maintain interest.
The pacing of the novel could do with some revving up and tweaking to sharpen the suspense, but overall it’s an enjoyable read as we ride along inside the thoughts of our impious and spiky heroine.
Annie may have lived in times vastly different to our own, but Ellis has installed her with a streak of pluck underneath her dark determination that means we root for her success as we enjoy the ride.