There have been some great novels shortlisted recently that are set in the Victorian era. Tensy Farlow and the home for mislaid children and Doug MacLeod’s fantastic The life of a teenage body-snatcher both come to mind. Apparently they fall into the category of Steampunk under the sub-genre ‘gaslight fantasy’. Although according to this wikipedia article they are, like, totally different. Hallmarks of the genre include brave and highly intelligent hero(in)es who debase themselves to comic effect, malicious Moriarty style villains equal in bravery and intelligence to our heroes but determined to use these gifts to malevolent ends and lots of orphans. The truth about Verity Sparks is one such novel.
Verity is, of course, an orphan. Before the novel began she was being raised by some unsavoury no-hopers until finding employ as an apprentice milliner. A run-in with a client sees her discover her gift for finding lost things and lose her job.
From the dedication page I was really peeved by this novel because it is one of those books that has a regularly recurring word in it that I don’t know how to pronounce (telee-ag-tavism? teeleeg-tavism?) like the name Cinna in The hunger games (which we now know is pronounced Len-ny Kra-vitz), it just doesn’t roll of the tongue. There is good reason for such a stupid sounding word though as is explained on page 66 but that is no excuse. Back to the plot.
Downcast and out on the streets, things turn from bad to worse for Verity but she (rather too quickly for my liking) finds succour in the form of the Plush family. The family run a style of detective agency and, as you can guess, Verity fits right in. Verity gets her gift into a bunch of cases and each reveal a little more of the story’s main problem – what is the truth about Verity Sparks?
This book has got great characters. They are all a bit hopeless and wonderful. Susan Green, a newcomer to the BotY shortlist, does a great job of describing them and, in doing so, exhausts the full spectrum of lovely. Miss Lillingsworth, for example, is “a tall, thin, middle-aged lady with a lot of nose, not much chin, and such big teeth she could have eaten an apple through a picket fence. She was very badly dressed, and very, very plain – but when she smiled, you forgot what she looked like. And her eyes were lovely.” The story also has a very healthy political undercurrent about the role of women in society and the strictures of class, particularly on the young. It is kind of like Oliver Twist in this way but without all the awkward antisemitism.
If there is anything wrong with this book, it is that there is too little of it. With all the stuff that happens in it, Green simply doesn’t have the time to befuddle us properly. She also panders to the younger audience in not letting us be traumatised enough along the way. Certainly if the book were to run to three installments we could have had a really good, long, terrifying kidnap scene. Or Verity could suspect the wrong person and be led down a really wonderful, harrowing red herring. Or she could work out whodunnit early in the piece but not be able to let on for whatever frustrating reason right until the very end. Or…
Perhaps it is best to just enjoy it as it is.