Things is Jars is like a female Sherlock Holmes story. Except Watson is a half-naked ghost – or possibly a drug-induced hallucination – in boxing shorts who has very little to contribute to the investigation.
London, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet. Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist.
As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment. The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen.
Bridie’s London is brutal and unforgiving. The ‘operating theatre’ is still a literal theatre, where medical students pay for a seat to watch gangrenous limbs removed and cancerous masses cut out. Some still rue the introduction of anaesthetic. It was much more entertaining to watch the patient held down, screaming, while the operation was performed. A sleeping patient is not as much of a spectacle.
Bridie practises science at a time when people still believe in ghosts and mermaids and will pay good money to gawk at the possibility of them. She firmly believes in following the trail of evidence and making decisions based on the available facts, rather than fantastical stories.
But Things in Jars also ponders the question – what if the evidence lies? And what if, despite all your rationalising, the thing which seems most bizarre is still the most likely explanation?
The more we learn about our world and how it works, the more we realise we don’t know. There’s a part of me that hopes we never figure it all out. Where would the magic lie then?
If you enjoy fabulous descriptions of 19th-century England, you’ll love this book. Jess Kidd has an incredible talent for making the reader feel as though they’re really there. Here’s one of my favourite passages:
Bridie could find her way with her eyes shut and her nostrils open.
Try it now. Close your eyes (eyes that would be confused anyway by the labyrinthine alleys, twisting passages, knocked-up and tumbling-down houses).
Breathe in – but not too deeply.
Follow the fulsome fumes from the tanners and the reek from the brewery, butterscotch rotten, drifting across Seven Dials. Keep on past the mothballs at the cheap tailor’s and turn left at the singed silk of the maddened hatter.
The cast of quirky, colourful characters is brought to life in a similar fashion:
Mr Wilks is a very old man with the look of something that has been carefully varnished and then put away for a long time… Held upright by his coat, Mr Wilks rarely moves, but when he does it’s with a sudden flapping flit, from stool to workbench and back again.
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Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.