"These Shallow Graves" Jennifer Donnelly (YA)
I read Jennifer Donnelly's novel "A Gathering Light" over a decade ago and it made a real impression on me. I was delighted to receive an advanced copy of her latest novel "These Shallow Graves" from NetGalley and couldn't wait to lose myself in another historical story which I knew would captivate me with engaging characters and an intriguing storyline.
The opening is full of foreboding, mystery and atmosphere. Set in 1890 we meet our protagonist Josephine Montfort, a young girl from one of New York's most wealthy and respected families, in a graveyard digging up a grave. The narrator tells us: "There was no going back. Not to her old life of drawing rooms and dances. Not to Miss Sparkwell's School. Not to her friends or to Bram. It had all gone to far." This clearly shows the reader they are in for a story of adventure, crime and danger.
Josephine, or Jo as she likes to call herself, is a strong, confident, ambitious and intelligent character who wants more than marriage in her life. She wants to be a reporter and follow in the footsteps of Nellie Bly - a scandalous female reporter "who meddles in other people's business". "Need I remind you," chastises Jo's mother, "unlike Nellie Bly, who has no hope of marrying a decent man, you are a Montfort and Montfort's marry. Early and well. And that is all." The theme of marriage runs through the entire novel and the frustration that Jo feels about the confines of the society at this time and the limited role for women are repeatedly referred to. She wants to report stories about women who have no voice; for example, the women who are being exploited at the Fenton Textile Mill but her friend Trudy says to her "There's no one more unfortunate than we ourselves who are not engaged yet. We are spinsters. Pathetic nobodies, we can go nowhere on our own.....we are allowed no opinions." This won't particularly change once they are married, but this belief, that they really are unfortunate until married, that it is their only focus, goal and value, is reiterated by Donnelly and will interest all contemporary readers as they consider their current freedom and the opportunities that lie before them. Jo is so bound by convention and expectations that she struggles to breathe, feeling as restricted as her physical self which is bound tightly by her corset.
Then everything changes. Jo father is found dead. He appears to have shot himself by accident while cleaning his gun.
On a visit to the newsroom, Jo overhears Eddie Gallagher, a reporter, claiming Charles Montfort committed suicide. The gun was in his right hand, loaded. "Only a fool cleans a loaded gun and your father was no fool. It was suicide," he tells her when she chases him and demands an explanation of his wild claims. "Your uncle bribed the police captain and coroner and threatened to sue any paper that reported otherwise." Jo wants to uncover the truth, salvage her father's reputation, get to the bottom of something she just doesn't understand, but yet again she reminded by Eddie of her weak and fragile position as a woman. "Suicide is not only ugly but scandalous," Eddie patronises her, reminding that it carries difficult questions of why....money? women? mental health? And most importantly for Jo's future, "You'd be shunned. You need to be married to a Aldrich, Roosevelt or Livingston..." Once again, Jo's desires are abruptly curtailed by the fact that she is only seen destined for marriage and nothing else; she is dismissed and ignored. But the newsroom has made a huge impression on her. Riled by the memory that her mother told her that her name will only appear in the newspaper three times in her life (her birth, her marriage, her death - such a loaded observation and so effective in reflecting what a commodity women were at this time) Jo wishes that she could be the next Nellie Bly and see her name alongside the newspapers next front page headline. She is determined to find out the truth about her father's death and make sure the story is reported.
Jo returns and manages to get Eddie to let her tag along as a "new cub" and help him uncover the real story behind her father's death, which she refuses to accept as accidental or suicide. And so she is plunged into an underworld of crime- an eye opening introduction to a whole world that exists in the dark backstreets full of threatening and dangerous characters. Eddie tests Jo's resilience and strength, always expecting her to fail and return to her charmed, privileged life, but the more Jo learns about reporting, the more risks she takes-the more embroiled she becomes in solving the mystery of her father's death and the more time she spends with Eddie- the more vacuous, shallow and empty she finds her family and her time at home.
Donnelly has clearly researched the historical period in great detail and she is able to evoke a convincing and authentic setting. Using the scenery of the Wharf area and incorporating themes of slavery is hugely effective in creating more tension and drama as well as generating interesting historical detail. Her characters like the "Tailor" are exciting and well captured. Her novel has echoes of Dickens, Leon Garfield and Philip Pullman's "Ruby in the Smoke" series. The characters are all colourful, appealing, interesting and vivid. Josephine is a fantastic role model and strong female protagonist. Donnelly uses dialogue with great effect, making the story very alive and developing the characters personalities so they are well conceived and believable.
The chapters are very short which keep the novel moving at a good pace and each chapter ends with a cliffhanger. The writing is accessible and very readable. Donnelly is a gifted story teller. I found the huge contrast between Jo's wealthy family and home and the life of Eddie, his room, and then the criminal underworld very compelling. It made it a more exciting novel and also really highlighted the dilemma of Jo as she finds herself facing difficult questions and decisions. It emphasises the complexity of her choices between family and the truth, about risk and consequence, truth and pain, reputation, love and loss. This is a coming of age novel as much as a crime thriller. Jo's journey and her realisation of the impact her discoveries will have, the fact that it will change her life and the life of everyone around her forever, create tension and suspense. The resilience and growth of Jo as she uncovers secret after secret and faces the consequences, show her to be a brave, courageous and resilient young lady. The novel explores what it really means to take a stand, to make a change, to fight for freedom and justice.
This is a complex novel. A great crime thriller with all the features of a true detective book. It is full of converging plots, numerous twists and turns, secrets, revelations, adventure and edge of your seat moments of excitement and drama. The historical setting creates a dark and sinister atmosphere and the underlying themes of women, freedom and choice add a further interesting dimension. This book would be perfect for readers aged 13+.
I will leave you with the closing lines of the story, spoken to Josephine, which should resonate and inspire all readers, but particularly girls.
"You are set to write your own story now. Nothing is luckier than that."
My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy of this novel in return for a fair review. For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK)