Janette Jenkins has written a series of memorable historical novels inspired by the lives of performers, from the story of a Coney Island showgirl to a re-imagining of Noel Coward's last days. Little Bones, her fourth novel, is set in late Victorian London, a dank, dismal place where only music-hall numbers can disperse the gloom.
Jane Stretch, the novel's young heroine, is an appropriately Dickensian creation. Born with twisted bones and an overly large head, she's abandoned by her alcoholic parents at the age of 15. With the workhouse beckoning, she takes a job as an assistant to her landlady's husband, Mr Swift, a "doctor" whose job it is to administer to the "shiny, pretty" girls of London's Theatreland.
It soon becomes clear that Mr Swift is in fact a backstreet abortionist ("The Good Fairy Cockleshell in Robinson Crusoe has been taken very badly"). As his erstwhile sidekick, Jane becomes adept at mopping bloodied thighs and calming the nerves of distrait patients. In the company of these warm-hearted thespian types she forgets her deformities and falls under the spell of the ornate flea pits of the West End –"this place of transformation".
Although Jenkins's eccentric cast list has all the makings of a penny-dreadful, her writing remains admirably restrained. Avoiding over-wrought historical-ese she plumps for punchy descriptions and similes that manage to sound neither fey nor anachronistic: "The dome of St Paul's was pillowed in cloud, like a dirty celestial carpet"; women "are wrapped like onions against the cold" and the sea "shivers over the pebbles, like eggs coming to the boil".
Viewed through Jane's innocent "owlish" eyes, the world is bathed in a new and surprising light. Alternating between Jane's pinched past and her increasingly precarious present, the novel moves breezily towards a dramatic courtroom denouement. Little Bones may not be the author's meatiest work, but it's a compelling and darkly humorous portrait of a lost, misshapen girl who suddenly finds herself centre-stage.
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