Sir Edmund Berwick is a collector. A collector of what exactly? Well, he has a keen interest in the abnormal. The mutated, the grotesque, life that is somehow, and the larger the difference the better, different to the norm and this life must live in, or around water. So, if you are a mutated, abnormal, grotesque form of water-born life in the vicinity of Sir Edmund, be very careful, you may become the latest edition to his collection. And so, the mystery of the title is explained swiftly.
Sir Edmund also lives with a secret. A secret that very few people are privy to. He has a daughter. He has kept her existence a secret because she has “singular traits”. The reader knows from the prologue that the daughter is not a normal girl. In fact, due to the wonderful opening prologue, the reader knows more about the girl than the main character. The problem is she has been abducted and because of these “singular traits”, Sir Edmund lies to the police, telling them that it was a robbery, but nothing was taken, and hires Bridie Divine, the protagonist of this wonderful novel to find his daughter.
Physically, she is best left to Kidd’s beautifully descriptive writing,
“A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap. She presents in half-mourning dress, well-cut but without flash or fashion. On top of her widow’s cap roosts a black, feather-trimmed bonnet of a uniquely ugly design. Her black boots are polished to a shine and of stout make. The crinoline is no friend of hers; her skirts are not full and she’s loosely laced as respectability allows. Her cape, grey with purple trim, is short.”
Bridie Divine, is what we would now call a private investigator. The plaque on her door reads.
“Mrs Devine Domestic Investigations Minor Surgery (Esp. Boils, Warts, Extractions) Discretion Assured”
A woman of many talents.
However, it is not just Bridie, this novel contains some of the most wonderful characters. There is her companion, a ghostly sidekick, a boxer in life, who accompanies her in just his boots, drawers and top hat. His many tattoos forever in motion around his body. He keeps telling Bridie that she knows him, but is reluctant to tell her from where, cryptically informing Bridie that she must work out the riddle herself, Bridie is clueless. There is Bridie’s seven-foot tall giantess of a maid Cora, who Ruby Doyle, the ghostly sidekick, upon meeting thinks is a man. The utterly evil kidnapper Mrs Bibby. The circus master who fancies himself as Henry VIII. Then there is Gideon Eames. Oh, Gideon, I think I shall leave the reader to discover more of him.
This novel is like Kidd’s other novels, beautifully metaphorical, but I found this novel even more descriptive in its style. Kidd will often shift the perspective to an animal, say a bird, and let the reader view the surroundings from their perspective. A brilliant touch that works to such great effect with the descriptive writing.
This novel, like her debut, “Himself”, is at its heart a whodunit, in which the reader already knows who done it. Also like “Himself” it is so much more. Again, the magical realism gives this book so much punch and with this book I found its strength to be the characters rather than the narrative. They are sensational, it is a joy reading them, especially when conversing to one another. The narrative flows along while Bridie interviews suspects at Marris House and is quickly on the trail of the kidnappers. The story darkens as we find out about the drowning of Christabel’s, the daughter, former nursemaid. Then the drowning of Sir Edmond’s wife. Seems to be a lot of drowning going on around here, ironically for somebody who collects marine abnormalities.
Some chapters will rewind the reader back in time. This shift in time used to establish Bridie’s background and childhood, while shedding some faint light on the narrative.
Some chapters will also be shown from the kidnappers’ perspective and these chapters are a treat. During these chapters Mrs Bibby, Christabel’s chief captor, tells her a story to keep her quiet and entertained. This micro story within the main story enables Kidd to really unleash her imagination and it’s a delightful yarn, a yarn that seems almost personal to the teller.
Also making a repeat performance is the witty, dark, humour that popped it’s head up on numerous occasions in “Himself”. There is a joke that continues through the novel in which Ruby, the ghost, is astounded that every animal he comes across seems to be able to see him. Very funny.
I claimed that the last book I read, “Himself”, Kidd’s debut novel, was my favourite read for the year and would probably remain that way. Little did I know how amazing this novel was going to be and so this now usurps it as my favourite, and Kidd is quickly scaling the ranks of my favourite authors. Alas, if only I could give it more, 5 Stars.
Jess Kidd was brought up in London as part of a large family from county Mayo and has been praised for her unique fictional voice. Her debut, Himself, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2016. She won the Costa Short Story Award the same year. Her second novel, The Hoarder, published as Mr. Flood's Last Resort in the U.S. and Canada was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2019. Both books were BBC Radio 2 Book Club Picks. Her latest book, the Victorian detective tale Things in Jars, has been released to critical acclaim. Jess’s work has been described as ‘Gabriel García Márquez meets The Pogues.’
There is an amazing little video here of Kidd talking about her inspiration for the book - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6XLYHGDlyw