Book Review: The Butcher’s Hook

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The Butcher’s Hook – Janet Ellis
Published by Hachette NZ

Georgian London, in the summer of 1763.
At 19, Anne Jaccob, the elder daughter of well-to-do parents, meets Fub the butcher’s apprentice and is awakened to the possibilities of joy and passion.
Anne lives a sheltered life; her home is a miserable place and her parents have already chosen a more suitable husband for her than Fub.
But Anne is an unusual young woman and is determined to pursue her own happiness in her own way…even if that means getting a little blood on her hands.

The Butcher’s Hook is the darkly witty debut novel from British actress and presenter, Janet Ellis. It tells the story of 19-year-old Anne, who lives in a home void of happiness and full of tragic memories. Her cold and seemingly-unfeeling father has found Anne a husband; Mr Onions is as repulsive to Anne as his name suggests. To complicate matters, Anne has fallen in love with Fub, the butcher’s apprentice and delivery boy, and her world is suddenly thrown into a passion-filled turmoil.

This is the kind of novel that hooks you in from the very beginning, and even though the “action” doesn’t happen until at least three-quarters of the way through, it is a compelling read. Ellis has a very natural and very witty style, yet manages to keep an 18th-Century voice throughout the story. She captures a dirty, crowded London beautifully, without excessive narration; as I read, I was transported back to the city I called home for a while, but as it would have been in the past.

As a heroine, Anne Jaccob is a bit of an enigma. Outwardly, she seems to have it all; she is pretty, partly educated, and comes from a family of some means. Inwardly, however, she is much more complex, astute and devious than you’d expect. Her observations of the world around her, especially the people, are very sharp, often caustic and droll:

There was a pattern to our habits, too, but it was a dull one, devoid of colour. My father farted at nine o’clock in the morning as he performed his ablutions; the church clock chimed in his malodorous wake.

As Anne becomes more determined to control her own fate, her actions become stranger but more persistent. She begins to understand that there is an unexplored world outside her home’s four walls, and that sometimes, Fate needs a little helping hand. However, as her desire for this control grows, so too do the tragedies, yet she can’t find any reason to doubt that her actions are anything but right. She sweeps the reader along in her heady quest for love, but it eventually becomes obvious that lust and love are quite different. Towards the end of the novel, Anne experiences a moment of growth, and there is the possibility of redemption, but her determination and belief in her own actions is still very strong…

This is a novel full of dark surprises and sardonic wit; Ellis has created a devious yet likeable cast of characters, and the result is a novel that will leave you wanting more.

(As an aside, I love the cover of this book! The random selection of drawings won’t seem so random once you’ve started to read, I promise!)

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