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Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

London, 1863: Christabel, the six-year-old daughter of a baronet, Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, has been kidnapped. The young girl is like no other. According to Doctor Harbin, Christabel is Edmund’s secret daughter, and has been residing in his home, Maris House.

The young Ms. Bridget “Bridie” Devine, a principled, pipe-smoking detective, takes up the case. She is reserved, tenacious, and intelligent, with a lifetime’s worth of experience in minor surgery and skills in investigative work. Originally a child from the slums, she was sold by her guardian Gan Murphy to the notable Doctor Eames for one guinea. There she witnessed the shadowy part of human nature in having to deal with the surgeon’s cold wife, Maria, and violent son, Gideon.

Kidd’s storytelling is gloriously original. The novel takes place in the present year 1863 and constantly shifts back to Bridie’s childhood years in the 1840s. The whole story features unique and interesting characters such as Bridie’s closest companions: Ruby Doyle, a pining ghost who was once a tattooed sailor and champion boxer, as well as Cora Butter, her seven-foot-tall maid. A loquacious parrot provides humorous company, while a mysteriously omniscient corvid watches over Bridie.

In this tale of crime, deceit, and bodies, Kidd’s novel explores difficult, ethical questions surrounding human dignity. The whole novel, with its precise references to anatomy, Classical and Celtic mythologies, and Gothic supernatural horror, is a fantastic blend of history and imagination. The narrator goads the reader to visualise the nocturnal scenery of Victorian London with its dark secrets, and even darker souls. A glimpse into the twisted passages of encroaching modernity, Things in Jars demonstrates that the worlds of the body and spirit are still connected in surprising ways. As the winter months come to a close, I recommend Things in Jars to anyone looking for an enjoyable evening read. Sit back, have a sip of Madeira, and let the tale sink in.

Reviewer: Azariah Alfante

Allen & Unwin, $32.99