Jess Kidd’s new book, Things in Jars, isn’t for everyone. The first two chapters introduce us to kidnappers, a strange, not quite human child who may or may not be a mermaid, and the ghost of a bare knuckle boxer, not to mention a dead woman and her baby walled up inside a church. If this combination of characters makes you think this is going to be too weird for you, then this is not your kind of book. But if you’re intrigued, especially when you learn that the book is set in a very realistic (if somewhat bizarre) Victorian London, then get ready for a wild adventure that will keep you turning pages to find out what’s going to happen next, that twists and turns and surprises you with the way past and present join together and inform each other, and that delivers a good, satisfying ending.
The plot seems simple enough: Bridie (short for Bridget) Divine, a supposed widow who’s making her living as an unofficial private investigator, is called in by a lord to investigate the disappearance of his illegitimate daughter, whom he believes has been kidnapped. As Bridie starts looking into the matter, however, she discovers that most of the supposed facts she’s been given are lies, that Christabel, the child in question, may not be human at all, and that there are more dangers to everyone involved than the lord suggested to her at the start. Her meeting with and cooperation with the aforementioned ghost (whose name is Ruby and who claims to have had a connection of some sort with Bridie, which she has to figure out) adds another dimension to her search, and the plot cuts back and forth between Bridie’s point of view of that of the kidnappers and their captive, Christabel (who is no helpless child, either).
All of this takes place in a Victorian London familiar to anyone who’s read Dickens, a London of high society, rich people collecting natural oddities and unnatural ones, but also of people living on the margins, finding legal and less legal ways to make ends meet. It’s so vivid you can practically smell it, and it feels like a real world, inhabited by real people, even if some of the characters aren’t living people at all.
The plot is fun, as you try to figure out what’s really going on along with Bridie, as you follow the sort of bedtime story one of the villains is telling Christabel and guess how much of that is true and fits in with the greater plot, and as the author gradually reveals Bridie’s past and ties it in to what she’s doing now. The author plays fair with you, giving you most of the clues you need to figure things out by the end but still managing to surprise you from time to time.
But, fun as the plot is to follow, the real pleasure of the book is in the characters. Bridie is a fully realized person, with all her quirks and failings, her underprivileged upbringing, the way she was shaped by her time in the house of a prominent doctor, her guilt over cases she didn’t manage to solve fast enough, and it’s a delight to spend time with her. But she’s joined by other vivid and wonderful characters, from Ruby, the ghost (with a full fledged personality and past of his own), to Cora, Bridie’s maid and general all around muscle. The villains are Dickensian, and I mean that in the best possible way. Gideon Eames is the stuff nightmares are made of, and Mrs. Biddy is chilling and dangerous, and their associates and people they deal with are vivid and flawed and untrustworthy and fascinating.
And then there are the supernatural elements of the book, most especially Christabel and what she really is (nothing like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or most other mermaids you’ve encountered in literature). The way water and the creatures of water, from snails to newts to seagulls, react to her is both surprising and perfectly sensible in light of what she is. Her background is explained, in a way, and she becomes more disturbing as you learn more about her and her true nature. The subtlety of Kidd’s description of the buried waterways of London rising because of Christabel is terrific, and if you don’t feel a bit clammy and damp after reading this book, you probably haven’t been paying attention.
So if you want a good read, in the sense of “they don’t write them like that anymore”, and you’re not daunted by a touch of the fantastic and supernatural, then hurry to pick up Things in Jars, and give yourself a block of time to dive into that Victorian London world.