#BookReview Little by Edward Carey @BelgraviaB

LittleAbout the Book

In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation.

As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and… at the wax museum, heads are what they do.

Format: Paperback (430 pages)         Publisher: Gallic Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018  Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I’ve been meaning to pick up this book for ages, ever since the lovely people at Gallic Books sent me a review copy. I’m now kicking myself that it’s taken me so long to read it because I thought it was brilliant – and I’m not alone. Longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2019, Little has received many plaudits, described as being ‘the wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris’ and ‘a darkly endearing cavalcade of a novel’. I agree.

Little tells the story of (Anne) Marie Grosholtz who joins the household of the eccentric Doctor Curtius, a sculptor of wax replicas of body parts. Later Curtius moves into creating wax heads, being particularly interested in the heads of murderers and Little begins to learn the art of taking plaster casts and assisting in the creation of the heads.

One of the visitors to Curtius’s workshop is the similarly eccentric Louis-Sébastien Mercier whose obsession is walking the streets of Paris and making notes on the people he sees. ‘So many different sentences of streets have my shoes walked me’.  Noting Marie’s short stature, it is Mercier who coins the name by which she will become known.

‘Aren’t you, little boldness’ – this he called me, and, very pleased with his own observation, he went on, not caring for a moment how I might take his words – ‘little ill-facedness, little minor monster in a child’s dress . . . little thing . . . little howl . . . little crumb of protruding flesh . . . little statement on mankind . . . little . . . little? he concluded, not certain in the end of what I was, only that I was little, a little of something.’

It is Mercier who introduces the increasingly penniless Curtius to the Widow Picot who becomes his landlady. Widow Picot takes an instant dislike to Little banishing her to the kitchen to perform the role of servant and hurling insults at her at every turn. Unfortunately Curtius lacks the courage to challenge Widow Picot and Little finds herself unable to continue to work alongside him. Gradually she forms a friendship with the Widow Picot’s son, Edmond, a quiet and withdrawn young man.

As the book progresses, Little encounters many curious characters, including the locksmith she meets whilst lost in the maze of corridors in the Palace of Versailles during her employment as tutor in wax sculpture to Princess Élisabeth, the sister of King Louis XVI. What Little doesn’t know is that her time at Versailles (even if she is expected to sleep in a cupboard) is shortly to come to an end as the bloody events of the French Revolution engulf Paris.

I loved Little for her determination, her sly wit, her kindness towards Edmond and the compassion she shows to the Widow Picot, the woman who made her life such a misery. In the final chapters, Little recounts the events of her later years, including how exactly she became Madame Tussaud.

LittleIt’s impossible to write a review of the book without mentioning the wonderful illustrations by the author that accompany the text. These include examples of the waxwork replicas of body parts and internal organs crafted by Doctor Curtius, likenesses of the characters who feature in the book and some of the waxwork heads exhibited for the paying public in the Great Monkey House. Amongst my particular favourites were Marie’s sketch of Edmond’s ears and of Florence the pug. The drawing that makes up the inside back cover of the book (pictured right) gives you a flavour of the illustrations.

Little is one of those books whose inventiveness and originality is difficult to convey in words.  By turns it’s macabre, funny, dramatic, dark and a little grotesque.  It’s also rather moving at times. For example, I got a little teary at comments by Edmond such as ‘Very convenient premises, apply within’ or when Little and Edmond explore The Celestial Bed. (I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to understand the context.)

Little is really quite fabulous, highly recommended for historical fiction fans looking for something a bit different, and definitely one of my favourite books of 2021.

In three words: Quirky, imaginative, engaging

Try something similarThe Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

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Edward CareyAbout the Author

Edward Carey is a novelist, visual artist and playwright. He is the author of two acclaimed novels, Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva. His YA series The Iremonger Trilogy is published in thirteen countries and has been optioned for film adaptation. Born in England, he teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

Now We Shall Be Entirely FreeAbout the Book

One rain-swept February night in 1809, an unconscious man is carried into a house in Somerset. He is Captain John Lacroix, home from Britain’s disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain.

Gradually Lacroix recovers his health, but not his peace of mind – he cannot talk about the war or face the memory of what happened in a village on the gruelling retreat to Corunna. After the command comes to return to his regiment, he sets out instead for the Hebrides, with the vague intent of reviving his musical interests and collecting local folksongs.

Lacroix sails north incognito, unaware that he has far worse to fear than being dragged back to the army: a vicious English corporal and a Spanish officer are on his trail, with orders to kill. The haven he finds on a remote island with a family of free-thinkers and the sister he falls for are not safe, at all.

Format: Hardcover (421 pages)          Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 23rd August 2018   Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2019, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the third book from my NetGalley November reading list. You can find out more about the challenge here.

The book has two strands that run in parallel. The first is Lacroix’s long journey north from his house in Somerset via Bristol, the home of his sister Lucy, to the Hebrides. It’s a journey he makes without much thought of a particular destination; it’s more about avoiding being recalled to service in the army and trying to escape the memories that haunt him. Only towards the end of the book will he reveal the nature of those memories to a confidante to whom he has become close. In the course of his journey, Lacroix experiences both the best and worst of humanity, experiencing violence but also the kindness of strangers. Eventually he arrives at a remote island in the Hebrides where he is given shelter by the Frend family, comprising Emily, her sister Jane, and their brother Cornelius. One of the themes running through the book is damage – physical, mental and emotional – so it’s notable that Emily is losing her sight and Cornelius is plagued by dental pain. John himself has been left partially deaf due to the illness he suffered on his return from Spain.

The second storyline involves Corporal Calley who has been given a mission by a mysterious individual to track down and kill Lacroix as part of a cover-up of atrocities committed in the war. Calley is the most relentless of adversaries; he’s cruel, brutal and entirely without mercy, committing some horrific acts along the way.  As he closes in on his prey, there is an increasing air of menace, especially since Lacroix is unaware of Calley’s mission.

At the end of the book, although some elements of the story are resolved others, in the manner of a sea fret, are left opaque for the reader to reach their own conclusion about.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the first book I’ve read by Andrew Miller and I can now understand why his writing has been the subject of so much praise. At times, it’s poetic in nature. One passage that especially sticks in my mind is from a scene in which two characters finally come together in an act of intimacy. ‘A mutual falling, the grief of appetite. And in between the touching, the tender manoeuvres, the new knowledge.’  

I received a review copy courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley. I alternated between reading my digital copy and listening to the audiobook version skilfully narrated by Joe Jameson.

In three words: Lyrical, intense, moving

Try something similar: The Redeemed by Tim Pears

Andrew MillerAbout the Author

Andrew Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, was published by Sceptre in 1997. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Grinzane Cavour Prize for the best foreign novel published in Italy. It has been followed by CasanovaOxygen, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award in 2001, The OptimistsOne Morning Like A BirdPure, which won the Costa Book of the Year Award 2011, The Crossing and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. Andrew Miller’s novels have been published in translation in twenty countries. Born in Bristol in 1960, he currently lives in Somerset. (Photo/bio: Publisher author page)

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