Review: A Pair of Sharp Eyes by Kat Armstrong (2019)

Set in early 18th century Bristol, this historical crime novel tells the story of Coronation (Corrie) Amesbury, a young girl who leaves rural Wiltshire to try and obtain a ‘place’ in the city. She arrives to find Bristol reeling from a series of murders of young boys, rumoured to be the work of a criminal nicknamed Red John. What follows is a deliciously pleasurable journey through the various spheres of Bristol life, from the merchant traders gambling on the price of sugar and slaves and retiring to their fine houses, to the poorest members of society trying to eke out a living alongside them.

From the very start, the reader is thrown into the action, and the intricately detailed world that the author has created. I have to admit that it took me a few pages to acclimatise to the language – Armstrong takes no prisoners and writes in a style that is so convincingly of the time that it is as if this novel has found its way here from the 18th century – but once I had adjusted, I was hooked. Corrie may be young, but she is not the naive, innocent girl that the reader might be expecting, and right from the start we see her negotiate her way through dangerous situations with admirable skill. There are subtle hints of a backstory that is never quite fully revealed; a touch which pleased me, as it gave her an unexpected depth: her defiant ‘that’s not for you to know’ attitude extends outward to the reader, and also avoids taking the novel into treacly romance territory.

What struck me most on reading this novel was the devilishly clever balancing act that the author performs. The plot has enough twists and turns to maintain a lively pace, but not so many as to be overwhelming. The dialogue is utterly convincing, as are the details of the food, clothes, and the sights, sounds and smells of the streets of Bristol. The modern sensibility that creeps in never compromises the book’s authenticity; rather, it allows for what feels like a ‘peek behind the curtain’: it is like reading an eighteenth century novel that has been freed from the constraints and censorship of the day, able to look square in the face issues such as slavery and prostitution that novels of the time had to draw a veil over. Corrie herself is an excellent protagonist and a pleasure to follow as she picks her way through the various obstacles and pitfalls that the city places in front of her. She, too, is a tightrope performer; treading a careful line between prudence and a sharp wit, her occasional flares of temper provide some of the most comic lines in this often hilarious book.

There are scenes of genuine tension in the book, too: the depiction of the storm that rages through Bristol is both frightening and exhilarating, and the discoveries of the murdered boys provide a chilling jolt in the narrative each time they occur. Once again, a careful balancing act restrains any tipping over into melodrama, while maintaining the thrill of a dramatic story well-told.

The supporting characters work hard in this book – each one is more than you expect, and as the connections between them are teased out, it becomes clear that there are many levels at play here. Mrs Tuffnell, Corrie’s capricious employer, is a complex and intriguing woman; there is something unsettling about the way she blows hot and cold, alternately rewarding and punishing depending on her whims, making her even more dangerous than a purely cruel mistress might be. The dynamics of the domestic servants in the Tuffnell household are well-drawn, and the relationships between Corrie and both her peers and her ‘betters’ are nuanced and realistic.

A Pair of Sharp Eyes is a joyously fast-paced yet intricate book: a treat for fans of eighteenth century novels, historical fiction, crime writing, or anything in between. On finishing this tightly-packed, immersive book, I was left feeling as if I had just been taken on a whirlwind tour of 18th century Bristol in all its colourful, deceitful glory, led by both a protagonist and an author into whose capable hands I was quite happy to entrust myself entirely.

Note: I received an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

A Pair of Sharp Eyes will be released in September 2019, and is available to pre-order now.


June 2019 Reading: Moonglow; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The View from Castle Rock; Little Exiles

Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016)

Presented as a memoir, but with many a knowing nod to its fictional nature, this novel purports to be the story of the grandfather of the narrator, Mike Chabon, as told from his death bed and interpreted by his author grandson. In non-chronological order, the novel leaps through episodes in the old man’s life, from his marriage to a French refugee to his wartime exploits to a spell in jail. Always referred to as ‘my grandfather’, the protagonist has a fascination with rockets and the moon landing, and approaches life with a rational, scientific view that belies his tendency to blow his top.

The book is full of lovely, surprising imagery, and the events themselves are as quirky and often hilarious as I would have expected from the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of the few books to make its way onto my ‘must reread’ list. The interplay of reality and fiction is a source of great fun for Chabon, with copious use of the trappings of memoir (footnotes, lists, descriptions of ‘real’ objects). But there are tender and serious moments here, too. The mental illness that afflicts the grandfather’s wife, with her haunting visions of the ‘Skinless Horse’, and the brilliantly depicted scenes set in France during/shortly after WW2, provide a constant reminder of generational trauma, as well as providing the key to the main mysteries that the novel gradually unravels. One scene that stuck with me was of the narrator and his mother looking at an old photograph album from which almost all of the pictures had disappeared; as his mother recreates the pictures from memory, it seems to matter less and less that they do not have a visual representation in front of them, as, indeed, the reader would not in any case. I have read a lot of books that explore the blurred lines between memory and reality, fiction and fact; this is one of the most playful, and certainly the funniest.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (2006)

I don’t really want to write about this book, and not just because I always have problems spelling ‘pyjamas’. I don’t like writing negative reviews, and I did not like this novel. So I will keep this brief. In Berlin in 1942, nine-year-old Bruno discovers that his family is moving to a mystery location due to his father’s promotion to Commandant. Bruno’s frustratingly wilful ignorance means that he insists on referring to their new home as ‘Out-With’, and doesn’t even bother asking what country it is in.

And this was one of my biggest problems with the novel: Bruno is deeply annoying, and inconsistent – despite signs of being curious about certain things, he calls Hitler ‘the Fury’, has no idea that he is the leader of Germany (despite the Fuhrer visiting their house), doesn’t know what a Jew is, and knows absolutely nothing about his father’s job. This is all very convenient for Boyne from a narrative point of view, as this ‘fable’, as the author styles it, relies upon the power of suggestion and leaving as much as possible unsaid. But to me, it rang deeply false. Even his older sister, who is supposedly 12, knows almost nothing about what is going on. Both children seem much younger than they are supposed to be, and indeed, perhaps it would have worked better for me if they had been younger. And while there are touching moments in Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel, whom he meets through the fence that runs alongside their property, their relationship did not strike me as well-developed, either.

The ending of the novel is certainly powerful, and there is an argument that, as a book for children, it might provide a useful starting point for opening discussions on the horrors of the Holocaust, but I found the withholding of information too artful, too contrived. In Robert Dinsdale’s book, Gingerbread, which I read earlier this year, one of the characters weaves a truly ‘mythical’ story out of the events of World War 2, turning it into a grim fairy tale by removing all historical detail and transforming Hitler and Stalin into the King in the West and the Winter King – I just feel that if Boyne had gone all-out allegorical, this book would have worked better for me. As it stands, the tenuous links to actual history strike me as unconvincing, and possibly even a little distasteful.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (2006)

Another book which blends fact and fiction, though in a very different way to Chabon’s novel. Munro begins this collection with a more or less straightforward factual account of her ancestors, the Laidlaws, who start out in Scotland before emigrating to America and Canada. During the first half of the book, her descriptions of family lore occasionally take flight into full-on forays into fiction, such as the re-imagining of the voyage across the Atlantic, and I found myself wanting more of the latter than the former, getting excited whenever the family historian gave up her pen to the short story writer.

The second half of the collection is more personal, detailing her parents’ struggle to make ends meet with their fur business, her childhood and adolescence, and brief mentions of her two marriages. Of course, there is no way to tell how much of this is invented, but somehow it really doesn’t matter: this is Munro on top form, lovingly crafting stories about what she knows. I read that she had been writing these family-based stories for a long time, keeping them separate from her other short stories, not sure where they fitted in; to me, they seem like a natural development. To build upon a not-very-good analogy I have made previously, Munro has gone from tilling her small patch to mining it ever deeper, reminding me of the beautiful descriptions of the glacial geography of Canada found towards the end of this book. I am still regretting not reading Munro’s work in chronological order – perhaps a project for the future is to start again with her earliest works; it would certainly be no hardship to re-read this brilliant writer.

Little Exiles by Robert Dinsdale (2013)

Another slight disappointment this month – I absolutely loved the two other Dinsdale novels I have read this year, The Toymakers and Gingerbread, and I was very excited to treat myself to another of his works. The premise is a compelling one: after WW2, children are shipped to Australia, having either lost their parents or being handed over by them to the Children’s Crusade, an organisation run by sinister men in black, and headed by the suitably creepy Judah Reed. The book takes its disturbing subject matter seriously, and is a well-researched, convincing work. The setting, too, is vividly described, moving from the freezing English winter to the heat of the Australian outback, where the landscape and the mission where the boys are put to work are brought to life through Dinsdale’s clear, precise prose.

The problem, for me, lay mostly with the main character, Jon Heather, and I can’t help wondering if I have perhaps missed the point – for me, he was hard to engage with, and I felt a distance from him that made it difficult to care too much. However, as a boy given up by his mother and shipped across the world, it does make sense that his emotional development would be stunted, and indeed his relationships with others in the novel reveal his difficulty in letting others in. I liked George, his chubby companion, and Peter, an older boy who escapes the fate of being sent to the mission and is instead put to work on a ranch, more; their stories pulled me in, and I wanted more of them, and less of dreary Jon (sorry, Jon, I know you’ve been through a lot).

In the second half of the novel, the flicking around of chronology and location may also have served the story in terms of creating a sense of dislocation and confusion, but it left me similarly detached and unable to throw myself fully into the book. There are tantalising elements that I wish had been further developed: the ‘wild boy’ who escaped; the ‘outings’ the boys are sometimes taken on; the aboriginal children being separated from their families, and so on. I found the ending anticlimactic, and was left feeling a bit empty, and even slightly guilty that a book with such powerful subject matter had left me cold. I’m certainly not giving up on Dinsdale – it may be that this novel just wasn’t for me.