Thursday, August 2, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

Publisher: Voice
Date: January 2012 (UK); August 7, 2012 (US)
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 350
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: July 1840: The young Queen Victoria has just entered her third year on the throne when a major recession brings London's desperate and destitute into its sweltering streets. While the city crackles with tension, orphaned Catherine Sorgeiul stays locked away in her uncle's home, a peculiar place where death masks adorn the walls and certain rooms are strictly forbidden. Nineteen years old and haunted by a dark past, Catherine becomes obsessed with a series of terrible murders of young girls sweeping the city. Details of the crimes are especially gruesome--the victims' hair has been newly plaited and thrust into their mouths, and their limbs are grotesquely folded behind them, like wounded birds--and the serial killer is soon nicknamed the Man of Crows. Catherine begins writing stories about the victims--women on their own and vulnerable in the big city--and gradually the story of the murderer as well. But she soon realizes that she has involved herself in a web of betrayal, deceit, and terror that threatens her and all those around her.

My review: The Pleasures of Men takes an interesting premise and goes wildly imaginative with it. Catherine Sorgeiul is a fascinating character; plagued for most of her life with intense morbid dreams and a series of misfortunes, she views herself as one marked by evil. The stories she writes as she investigates and ponders the serial murders are, technically, fiction even within the narrative, but by writing them she brings to life for readers the experiences of the deceased in working-class London.

In execution, however, the overall story is rather vague and meandering. There's great mystery - who is the murderer? what horrible things for which Catherine blames herself happened to her family? - but it develops only in fits, so that much of the development is agonizing in pace. The historical details keep this an interesting read, but the pace is, at times, frustrating. Some of the concluding revelations seemed odd and not very fitting to me; there were also parts of the story that didn't receive much closure. With a great gothic feel - complete with all the usual elements of death by various means, insanity, incest, and a dying family line - The Pleasures of Men could have turned out to be an excellent, dark historical narrative, but its execution and conclusions often left something to be desired.

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