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Mad about books: ‘Things in Jars’ by Jess Kidd


I usually love reading stories that are based in reality, but sometimes I need a little change. This week I read “Things in Jars” by Jess Kidd, which blends historical fiction and fantasy together in the setting of Victorian London.  

Jess Kidd has a unique fictional voice that took me a little while to get used to while reading this. The story is told from an omniscient narrator’s perspective—someone or something that is telling the story to the reader who knows the thoughts and feelings of each character. I can’t summarize Kidd’s writing style without taking excerpts from the book itself. When talking about the city of London, Kidd writes “The metropolis isn’t sleeping, not really. For every Londoner in bed there are ten awake and up to no good—on the fly, on the loose, on the tiles! The moon knows; she sees all. Tonight, she’s our guide, for it’s late and every self-respecting raven will be perched in her own black-feathered embrace. Let the corvid sleep! The moon sees the beauty and cruelty of London: her whores and drunks, saints and murderers, thieves and lovers and fighters. The moon sees every black alley and yard, scrubland and marsh.” Unlike Nicola Yoon, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, the perspective of the passerby and the city itself are not as in-depth and are usually only told as it relates to the story of our main character, Birdie Devine. 

Birdie is almost like Sherlock Holmes, except that she is a woman, wears an ugly bonnet instead of a deerstalker and is haunted (or maybe just followed, depending on how you look at it) by a boxer named Ruby who claims to know who she is (although she has a very hard time placing him, and doesn’t even believe that ghosts exist for that matter). She is characterized as “made of boot polish and pipe smoke, clean cloth and the north wind. And as for the dead man walking behind her, well, he means no harm.’’ Along with Ruby the ghost, she has the help of her seven-foot-tall maid, Cora, and an apothecary who loves crows.  

Birdie’s latest case involves a missing child—something that hits a little too close to home as the last case she was involved in ended with a dead little boy. Birdie is determined to make up for her last mystery by finding 6-year-old Christabel, the secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick. Christabel and her nanny have gone missing, but due to Christabel’s alleged oddness, Berwick can’t publicize it. Christabel can’t speak, although she can understand what adults are saying. She is always hungry, although only for the snails and newts that seem to follow her around. And, perhaps by a trick of the light, her eyes can change from pale to black in mere seconds.  

Not only do we follow Birdie on this journey to find Christabel, but we see Birdie unearthing her own past as well. We see her journey from a little girl in Ireland to a woman in Victorian London who can read corpses like a book. Not only does this create a great context for her character, but we see how this kidnapping and Birdie’s own childhood fit together.  

Through her detective work, Birdie becomes involved with people and organizations that will pay anything to have a rare oddity, abnormal creature or horrifying myth come to life.   

While the writing style can be hard to get used to at first, it is definitely worth it to power through. The unique writing, once I got used to it, gave life to every little thing that Kidd wanted to talk about, from the city of London to Birdie’s ugly bonnet and anything in between. She also uses Irish myths and folklore in her writing, something I haven’t seen any other writers do (usually if I read a book involving myths and legends they are Greek or Roman beasts and gods). I must add that the villains in this are very well written, and there’s no reason for their behavior, which can sometimes leave me wanting more, but in this case showed that they were just psychopaths and sociopaths who don’t need a tragic backstory in order to be taken seriously. From Kidd’s perspective, it seems some people are just bad, no matter the circumstances they grew up in, and being good is a choice that people like Birdie, who had a horrific childhood and deals with death and gore every day, keep making.  

If you love folklore, historical fiction, mysteries or magical realism (or if you’re just trying to not be bored during the quarantine), then you’ll want to pick up this book.  

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