The Gifts by Liz Hyder – a novel of Victorian women and the challenge of being different

The Gifts by Liz Hyder

An historical written with real skill and flair, this novel is a triumph. At first sight it seems unlikely, with a basic proposition that almost makes it a fantasy, but it is solidly lodged in its time of early Victorian London. This is a time of absolute poverty for most and social ambition for some. There is scientific curiosity which runs alongside strong religious beliefs. This is an age of strict social expectations of women, who are sometimes forced to take drastic action, and the deep unfairness of the treatment of someone who is different. There is unfairness and real peril, but also optimism. Although most of the action takes place in the streets and buildings of London, there are also pictures of the Shropshire countryside and refences to a destination even further away. The story is told from five perspectives, which seems complex, but as the narrative proceeds it becomes completely natural, as each character in this well written book is consistent and each in their own way is fascinating. I found Etta, Edward, Anne, Mary and Natalya well drawn, as well as those around them, from street urchins to concerned elderly ladies. The narrative of this book drew me in, as it established itself as reasonable and logical, and it becomes a searing account of the treatment of the different at the time on various levels. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The book opens with a Prologue that features Etta. She finds herself in the countryside where she usually roams free, without her much loved canine companion who has succumbed to poison. She finds herself in inexplicable agony, not knowing what is happening to her. Just as she discovers, to her absolute surprise, that she has just sprouted a pair of huge wings from her shoulders, she feels the pain of being shot by a boy with a crossbow, and she descends into darkness. The scene changes to a few days earlier in London, as surgeon Samuel demonstrates a rapid amputation on a hapless patient in the pursuit of speed rather than accuracy or concern for infection. Edward Meake is watching jealously, aware that such shows will win his long-term friend and enemy more plaudits and advancement. Samuel crows about this being the age of science, and “And yet, are we not in our own way gods you and I, eh?” For Edward ambition is all, to be grasped by any means, such as been seen at the right church with his wife Anne, by illicit private experiments in the basement of his house, and the desperate urge to throw everything at achieving the breakthrough that will make his name and fortune. Thus, Anne is left alone in the upper part of the house, separated from her friends, denied her need to sketch and paint. When Edward obtains a remarkable specimen in the form of the corpse of a winged woman, he develops a dangerous obsession. Meanwhile in a poor part of London, Mary, a remarkable young woman, has grown up in the care of two loving men. George has recently died, and the surviving uncle, Jos, has tried to drown his sorrow in excessive drink. Happily, Richard, who learnt his journalism from Jos, has returned to London and encourages Mary to earn proper money from reviewing books. When they learn of the mysterious Thames Angel, they get onto the story from fortunate hints. Meanwhile, Natalya, a storyteller, is making her way to London in a desperate search for a cousin and a new life.

This is a multi-perspective novel which is so well written that the main narrative drive is clear, and the book rapidly becomes enthralling. This is a fantastic read, and I recommend it to everyone who enjoys well written historical fiction.