Review of The Butcher's Hook by Janet Ellis
The Butcher's Hook
by Janet Ellis
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This novel has quite the body count. Normally I hate hiding ARC reviews behind spoiler-walls, but it’s got to be done in this case….
I received an ARC of The Butcher’s Hook for free from House of Anansi Press in return for an honest review. And I will be honest: this book squicked me out a bit. I loves me the free books, though, and if you want me to talk about how much your book squicked me out, get in touch!
Janet Ellis serves up what seems, at first, to be a fairly standard piece of historical fiction. Anne Jaccob doesn’t want to get married—but since this is London in 1763, she gets little say in the matter. She tries to distract herself from the unwanted suit by going after the butcher’s boy, gradually developing her coquettish skills and becoming more comfortable with the desires she feels when she is around the down-to-earth young Fub. Just when you think you’ve got this thing figured out, there is a twist that sends Anne off on an entirely different trajectory. It’s not what you think … but it walks that strange line between hilarious and macabre.
The beginning is lovely. Ellis develops Anne’s character quickly: we see how she is bright and eager for knowledge, even when every young. Unfortunately, Anne discovers the hard way that her sex means this thirst for knowledge won’t always be celebrated, let alone satisfied. The scene between her and Dr Edwards is very awkward and uncomfortable, to be sure. However I was actually more moved by Anne’s falling out with Keziah. This, to me, marked the moment that Anne realizes she is different, not just from men but from other women; it foreshadows her always being alone. Anne’s lack of companionship throughout her early adolescence, her lack of confidants, seems to play a big role in shaping her prior to her infatuation with Fub.
I also like how Ellis explores Anne’s nascent sexuality. Depictions of female masturbation are too few in fiction, so it’s cool that Ellis works it into a book that is all about repressed sexuality. After the meet-cute with Fub, an overwhelmed Anne retreats to her room. Ellis briefly and tastefully—but clearly—describes what’s going on, making it clear that Anne is definitely in tune with her body and aware of how to pleasure herself. This scene, almost a footnote at the end of a chapter, is in some ways much more transgressive than either the sex or the slaughter that follows.
Because, yeah. Anne straight-up murders a guy. Then a boy. Then a girl her own age.
Watching as Anne plots the murder of Dr Edwards is fascinating. Ellis conveys the thrill that Anne receives from finally having a measure of power: she can do something, can take action, to fix something she perceives as having gone wrong in her life. She harnesses the only leverage that she has (her femininity and youthful attractiveness) and lures Edwards into a secluded spot. The clinical way that she goes about killing him, and his very calm reaction to the act, almost tilts the book towards melodrama. Almost.
What actually tilts the book is what happens next, when Anne discovers a boy who went to Dr Edwards for some tutoring is suspicious and might tip the police off about her. I love this trope (I can’t find its page on TVTropes, if one exists), where in order to cover up your murder you have to kill someone else … and then the whole thing just snowballs. But if her first murder reveals Anne’s cold-bloodedness, this murder shows her utter lack of conscience. We could have attributed her offing Dr Edwards, in part, to his abuse of her when she was younger. The boy, aside from threatening to spill his guts, was innocent. And Anne’s ability to act so calmly, both when talking to Dr Edwards’ daughter and when talking to the vicar about the boy, demonstrates her deeply amoral character.
The “Jane Austen meets Gone Girl” comparison on the back of the book makes sense now. I kind of ignored it before I read the book, because I haven’t read Gone Girl and have no interest in it. That being said, I might characterize this more as “Emily Brontë meets Gone Girl,” because I think that Brontë could very well have written Gone Girl if she were alive today. Ellis is essentially replacing the Gothic horror aspect of Wuthering Heights with a no-less-chilling more modern approach to the psychopath. Although I was looking forward more to a modern deconstruction of the matchmaking of that era, instead I got to watch Anne get discounted and ignored as a result of her sex and perceived fragility. She outright confesses to Fub, at least twice, and he laughs in her face.
That ending though.
Dr Edwards’ death is revenge; the boy’s is expedience. What is Margaret’s? Malice. Plain and simple. Anne understands she cannot ever have Fub, cannot run away with him much as she might like to … but if she can’t have Fub, then she resolves that Margaret won’t have him either. Again we see the premeditation, the careful planning and guile and flattery that she uses to put her victim at ease. This time, however, there is even more cruelty. Unlike Edwards, who—while not deserving to be murdered—did wrong Anne grievously, Margaret has done nothing wrong at all. Yet Anne brutalizes her, leaves her broken and bloody to die in a fire—which, by the way, consumes and destroys the butcher’s livelihood.
It’s this collateral damage that is, in some ways, the most ghastly part of Anne’s embrace of her full darkness. Killing individuals is terrible, and we saw the damage that did to people like Dr Edwards’ daughter. Yet Anne essentially ruins the Leveners when she kills Margaret, and she shows no evidence of remorse or guilt over that consequence. It’s all the same to her.
And so she sets off into the world. I wonder if her mother knows or suspects Anne’s nature and what she has helped to unleash on an unsuspecting Britain. The Butcher's Hook is ultimately about transformation: Anne grows up from a precocious child into a dangerous young adult, and it’s anyone’s guess where she might go or who might earn her wrath next. All in all, it isn’t the novel I was expecting, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.