Imagine your basic Georgian period piece, a young woman being forced into a marriage to a man she hates. An overbearing father. A sheltered life. Your basic oppressed femininity tale that barely grapples with the flaws present in 18th Century society. The Butcher’s Hook is completely the opposite to this.
Janet Ellis takes every trope of period fiction and turns it on its head. This book was so refreshing. Not to hate on the subtle wit of Jane Austen and those who had to write under the patriarchy of that time. Or even the modern authors whose historical fiction romanticises the day to day horrors of being a woman during that time. What is good about The Butcher’s Hook is the voice of the main character.
Ellis steps into the shoes of the protagonist Anne Jaccob and from the first page the reader is aware that she is a different sort of character. There is a reason I stayed up till 2am finishing the novel when I had a 7am start. I literally couldn’t step out of Anne’s head. Her voice was raw, honest, and captivating. She is not a “good” character but she exists in a society that is not “good” to her, her actions can be rationalised and almost emphasised with (almost being the key word here).
Ellis’ Anne is such a fleshed out character that as the reader progresses on her journey with her and her voice becomes stronger and her actions more extreme, nothing she says or does is surprising. Without spoiling any of the last half of the novel, Anne is basically willing to do anything to get out of her arranged marriage and be with the man she believes she loves. The reader follows, probably with baited breath, as the dark thoughts she has had since a child and her lack of empathy coalesce into a series of events that are completely outside the realm of any other period fiction.
At the same time Anne is a very recognisable teenage girl. She is not an adult. Her emotions and feelings are at once naive and brave. The biased narrative of being within her head tricks the reader into sympathising with her and believing in her causes. It is a fantastic manipulation of reality and emotions. Anne is, objectively, an empty shell of a human. The last line of the novel made me shiver because it is her personality encapsulated in her own words and in its brevity sums up her entire sense of being. (Again, I won’t write it. Read the book!)
Knowing very little about the novel before starting it, other than it had been recommended and I enjoyed the cover – I was instantly refreshed to realise it was not going to be a normal jaunt into the 18th Century. From the get-go Anne is smart, sarcastic, and an unforgettable character. Her interactions with the world around her intrigue and disgust on equal levels. This book will be on my recommended reads definitely until the next time a sociopathic, smart, and surprisingly sympathetic 18th Century heroine comes along.