‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis

My rating: 3 stars

The Butcher’s Hook, Janet Ellis’s debut novel, left me with mixed feelings. Although it has some funny undertones, this is quite a dark and twisted tale that I was promptly interested in and eager to know the outcome of. However, the writing style and the pacing were not very consistent, and I was somewhat disappointed with the ending.

Anne Jaccob, the narrator of the story, is quite a curious young woman, whose parents have just had another daughter. But this is not the story about a joyful household. Her mother had several miscarriages beforehand, and a baby boy died some years earlier. Not having a son is for Anne’s father a great disappointment, and one day she hears him voicing it to her mother in unfriendly terms.

Along the novel, which takes place during the 18th century, we realise how Anne resents her family, mainly her father, and still mourns for the baby boy who died, since she had become quite close to him. But she doesn’t intend to feel any love for her new-born sister, showing bitterness about having to share her mother with her.

One day she encounters the butcher’s boy, Fub, who was unknown to her, in the kitchen and becomes instantly infatuated with him. She manages to find out where he works and after that moment we see her desires flourish. As she is overflowing with passion, she intends to continue to see him whenever an opportunity arises, being quite cunning in finding ways to do so. However, her parents already have a future husband chosen for her, whom she finds utterly disagreeable.

Anne is part of an upper-class family, but it seems like she only realises that there is a divide between classes when she faces the fact that she doesn’t know anything about the life of her cook, Jane, who has worked in her house since she was born. Nevertheless, she doesn’t consider the difference in status as an impediment for her relationship with Fub at first.

Mainly at the beginning of the novel, Anne refers back to past moments in her life and we get a glimpse of both her personality and her desire to understand the natural world in unconventional ways for a girl of that time. When she was younger, she was taught by Dr Edwards about geography, languages, God and, in a reprehensible method, the human body. He once tells her that “in this world we, not an invisible deity, are the architects of our lives”. And in a certain way she takes over the reins of her own life.

The resentment she harbours and some of the events that took place during her childhood shape the person she becomes, capable of brutal actions and showing no remorse. But, despite all of her intelligence, she completely misunderstands how Fub really is like and what he desires from life.

The narration of events is fairly detailed and the descriptions of places and people are pretty suggestive, although in some instances they are excessively detailed, while in others I couldn’t quite picture the scene. I really liked how Anne’s feelings are described by the effects they have on her.

“There is nothing soft or sweet about my feelings for him – they throb like a heart cut living from a beast and I am as ravenous as a bird of prey.”

Nevertheless, some of the metaphors are slightly off-putting during the first events at the slaughterhouse. That doesn’t mean I disliked the prose in general, in fact there are some really good moments throughout The Butcher’s Hook.

The story had a lot of potential, but it feels like it wasn’t fully realised. The ending felt a little bland and Anne’s mother last act came a bit out of nowhere in my opinion, although there are hints that she may have a secret of her own. After a couple of chapters, I had such high expectations for this book that I ended up feeling slightly disappointed.

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