Writing a book review isn’t an instantaneous thing for me. I don’t turn the last page of a book and immediately start bashing away at the keyboard. Instead the review forms over time in my head, sometimes whilst I am still reading, and then it takes me a little while to put it all in to words. For about half of Esther Freud’s ‘Sea House‘, the review which was forming was at best indifferent, at worst uncomplimentary. But then something changed and I was totally won over by its charm.
Lily has rented a Suffolk cottage so that she can work on her research of a famous architect, Klaus Lehmann. Reading through Lehmann’s letters, given to her by his son, Lily learns of Klaus’ passion for his wife, Elsa – a love which is possessive and jealous. The focus of the novel alternates between Lily and Max Meyer, a young artist who was commissioned many years ago to produce a painting of the house of Gertrude Jilks. Through Gertrude, Max is introduced to Elsa and the pair embark upon a passionate affair. Lily’s echoes Max’s; while she and her partner, Nick, are apart, she is drawn in to a relationship with Grae, her neighbour. Gradually, the past and present converge, as the links between the characters are revealed.
The book has a fairly complex plot – I couldn’t work out the connections between the main players: the lines joining them were only sketched lightly. After a while, I decided to abandon my frustrations and stop thinking so hard about the plot. The novel is full of insightful descriptions and prose, in which the sea and its shoreline communities play an important part. Unsurprisingly, houses also feature heavily, anchoring people in time and place.
It was at the point that I stopped concentrating so hard that I began to enjoy this book more. It must have been all those descriptions of the sea. I just let it wash over me.
Anne Jaccob is a young woman who knows what she wants. What she wants is Fub, the butcher’s boy. With her household thrown into disarray by the arrival of a new baby, Anne is drawn into the arrangements involved in running a London house in the 1700s, including the checking of meat brought for inspection. Fub brings the cuts of flesh to the back door, and hooks Anne. He awakens something in Anne which she has not experienced before and which she is not going to give up easily. But when their liaison is threatened, Anne herself is drawn into a realm of butchery and blood spillage that Fub could never have envisaged.
This novel, the debut novel by former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Janet Ellis, fascinated me. The period and historical details of the book are finely drawn, creating a credible backdrop against which the author sets out the tale. But it is Anne herself who provides the main interest; from the outset the reader knows that Anne has the capacity for malevolence when she is slighted. She is cunning, duplicitous and single-minded, capable of hot-blooded passion yet also cold-blooded revenge. I was totally drawn in by her.
As well as Anne, there is a strong supporting cast of characters who spring to life from the page: Simeon Onions, to whom Mr Jaccob hopes that Anne will be married, lecherous Dr Edwards who abuses the trust of both Anne and her father, twittering Aunt Elizabeth. The women in the novel are largely compliant and malleable, shaped by the strictures of their society. The men don’t fare much better, being self-interested and unscrupulous.
Some reviewers have called the ‘The Butcher’s Hook‘ a feminist work and I am not sure if I entirely agree with that conclusion. However, what does become apparent as the plot progresses, is that in order to hold on to what she wants, Anne has to behave more like the men around her than the women. Leaving me wondering if anything much has changed since 1763.