Gaslight

Gaslight was written by Eloise Williams and first published in 2017. It is historical fiction, set in 19th Century Cardiff, which focuses on a fourteen-year-old girl in search of her lost mother. The story stands alone, so you don’t have to have read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

Nansi remembers that her mother was beautiful and kind and on the run from someone. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember anything more than that. She can’t remember how she came to be floating in the River Ely. It was lucky that Sid found her when he did. If he hadn’t been there to rescue her and give her somewhere safe to live, who knows what would have happened to her.

She knows that she should be grateful to Sid, yet sometimes it’s difficult. People call him Pernicious Sid with good reason, as he forces her to steal things to help pay his substantial debts and punishes her brutally if she fails. Still, at least he has given Nansi her own room beneath his theatre and promises that he will save money for her until she can afford a private detective to help search for her mother.

Yet everything changes on the day that Constance and Violet join the theatre. The fact that Sid overlooks Violet’s cruelty causes Nansi to finally see how he really is, and Constance brings a vital clue concerning her mother’s whereabouts. Soon, Nansi finds herself on the run from Sid and his men. Her only hope is to find her mother before he can catch her. If she doesn’t, who knows what fate Sid will have in store for her…

Before I begin, I just want to remind you that my opinions are my own. I am an independent blogger and I don’t claim to know everything there is about what makes a novel good. Since Gaslight was first published back in April, it’s earned a lot of rave reviews. This is what made me curious to take a look at it myself, even though Victorian fiction isn’t my preferred genre. However, I’ve got to say that I was left distinctly underwhelmed by this story. Let me tell you why.

Gaslight has the echo of a Charles Dickens novel. Like Oliver Twist, it’s the story of a (potentially) orphaned girl who is taken in by a cruel and abusive criminal. Sid, who functions as a cross between Fagin and Bill Sikes, forces the naïve Nansi to do whatever he tells her. This ranges from innocuous things like helping out around the theatre, to posing as a maid and robbing wealthy people. If she does badly or gets seen, she is choked and beaten. This isn’t pleasant to read by any means, yet this is entirely the point.

The first half of the novel, as grim as it can be, was where Gaslight was the most interesting. It was a detailed look at what life was like in a Victorian theatre, from how the actors lived to how the different acts worked. It was particularly interesting to learn about how dressmaking was once a deadly profession (as green dyes were made from arsenic) and how mediums duped their audiences.

It was also a time when women were basically treated as objects. Nansi is more than aware that she is utterly dependant on Sid. If she puts a toe out of line, she knows that he could have her sent to the workhouse or even committed. And there would be nothing that she could do to stop it as he’s a man and it’d be the word of a teenage girl against his.

Yet it was the second half of the novel where things went downhill. At less than 200 pages long, Gaslight is short even for a middle grade novel. The first hundred pages are all scene setting but around the halfway mark, a vital clue to her mother’s whereabouts just falls into Nansi’s lap. Without spoiling too much, it really is the coincidence to end all coincidences and it’s never explained where the character in question happened by this information. And after this everything became a blur.

The climax of the story just felt rushed. After years of separation, it should not have been so easy for Nansi to find and reunite with her mother – especially given where it turns out she has been all that time. For a novel with its roots in historical fact, it just felt completely unrealistic and this did spoil my enjoyment of the novel. It also all wrapped up far too neatly in the final chapter. For all the hardships that she faced, Nansi basically achieves everything she dreamed of and gets her happily ever after. While some readers will love this faerie tale feel, I personally felt it was far too saccharine when compared to the nastiness of the early chapters.

The characters of the novel were also quite variable. To begin with the positives, Nansi was a decent protagonist. While she did seem a to be written a little young (at times, I thought she seemed closer to ten than fourteen), she was a strong-willed girl who was willing to do whatever it took in order to rescue her mother. The only other character that really stood out was Sid, as his motivation was eventually explained during the climax. However, this largely took the form of an information dump and could really have done with more foreshadowing earlier in the story.

Beyond them, the other characters felt disappointing shallow. Violet, for example, just existed to be horrible. She felt a bit too much like a Roald Dahl villain as she was happy to sentence little girls to die in order to ensure that she was well dressed. Even the characters that Nansi considered friends, such as Bee and Constance, didn’t really get a lot to do. Their struggles occasionally helped to motivate Nansi, but they didn’t get any real development of their own.

Anyhow, I don’t really have a lot more to say about this one. As you might be able to tell, it’s not really the novel for me. The story felt rushed and the characters were largely forgettable on the whole. However, I do note that this novel seems to have achieved massive amounts of positive reviews and so I accept that I might have missed something. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this book but if you’re curious, feel free to check it out. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Gaslight can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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