I recently received a package of new and upcoming titles from Bloomsbury, including an advance copy of Mary Hooper’s gothic mystery Fallen Grace. As soon I started reading Fallen Grace, I was swept away to Victorian England, to a world of corrupt funeral companies, desperate street urchins, opulent carriages and crooked pawn shops—a world where the divisions between rich and poor are starkly visible in a walk down any London street. That’s one of the beauties of historical fiction: it transports readers to another time and place. Hooper makes this world real and immediate, peppering her novel with meticulously researched details ranging from the fashion of the time to the inscriptions on gravestones. Hooper places two orphaned teenagers into this world: Grace and her older, “simple” sister Lily.
I have a confession. My lists of “soon-to-read” (and “soon-to-blog-about”) books is always bigger than the hours I can devote to reading. So, sometimes I’ll read the first paragraphs of several novels before settling into one. I did this before I started Fallen Grace, and it was Mary Hooper’s novel than won me over with an opening scene I dare any reader to turn away from. The book begins with Grace boarding a funeral train with her stillborn son in her arms, aiming to give him a proper burial by sneaking him into one of the caskets already occupied by someone wealthy enough to afford a funeral. It’s a beginning rife with trouble, and as Janet Burroway wrote in her classic Writing Fiction: “only trouble is interesting.”
Hooper follows Burroway's advice zealously, and the trouble of the opening scene doesn’t relent. Grace is destitute, sharing a single room with her sister in the poorest part of west London. Though Lily is older, Grace must care for her, which she does with loyalty and kindness, and occasional moments of frustration. The girls survive—barely—by selling bunches of watercress, a precipitous position they lose when a series of misfortunes land them homeless without a penny or possession to their name.
The sequence of misfortunes catapults Grace and Lily into the lives of the corrupt Unwin’s, a family whose fortune is won in the funereal trade. The Unwins are classic villains: when George Unwin tells his cousin “Sly” Sylvester Unwin that they have something to celebrate, Sylvester tries to guess, “What is it then? New wave of cholera hit London? Massed funerals all around?” They’re easy to dislike, especially when their greedy ambitions come up against the possibility that Grace and Lily might finally catch a break.
Lots of trouble, a kindly young lawyer, a good-hearted midwife who makes a rash decision, dastardly villains, a foggy city…there’s much to love in Hooper’s novel, much to keep the pages turning. The details about the business of death in Victorian London gives the book a rich, dark overtone. This gloom is captured during Grace’s time as a “mute”—a professional mourner hired to work at the funerals of London’s rich and famous. In the following passage, Grace waits deep in the catacombs for the funeral to arrive:
[B]y the light of the tallow candles on the wall, all she could see were small square cells fronted into iron grilles which contained coffins: coffins in pine, mahogany, elm, oak, and rosewood, some with names on, some without, some studded with gold nails, some covered in velvet, some with long-dead wreaths of roses atop or a single mouldering bloom. Several had a favourite possession of the dead person placed beside them: a toy, a vase, a mildewed cushion. So many dead, Grace thought in melancholy wonder, and realized, for perhaps the first time, that there were more dead people in the world than live ones.
Mary Hooper’s mixes history and mystery into a novel that’s hard to put down. If you’re unafraid of a little darkness, try Fallen Grace. It’s coming out from Bloomsbury on February 1, 2011 and it will be worth the wait. (And if you want something to tide you over until February, try Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. It’s another mystery set in Victorian London. Hooper’s book reminded me of how much I enjoyed Pullman’s; they’d make a great pairing for any lover of gothic-style historical fiction.)
(Hooper, Mary. Fallen Grace. Bloomsbury Publishing, due out February 1, 2011)