A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, September, 2016.
I am a big fan of MJK’s standalone books (and not so long ago we had an MJK week at bibliobrit), and though they are all very different, they share an excitement and specificity about a historical setting, as well as creatively introducing different speculative elements, all wrapped up in an intensely human story.
And he keeps getting better! A Taste for Monsters is a story of redemption set in a wonderfully drawn late 19th Century London, with a Gothic mood, and supernatural elements drawing from the spiritualist ideas of that era. 17 year-old Evelyn Fallow gets a job as maid and companion for Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, at the London Hospital in the East End. This coincides with the horrific Whitechapel murders, attributed to the never-identified Jack the Ripper, and when the victims start haunting Joseph, Evelyn feels it is her task to bring peace to the ghosts.
Educated and intelligent (and fictional) Evelyn narrates with the formality and seriousness of a Victorian novel (though, thankfully for YA readers, without the longueurs), but her true heart, and her devotion to Joseph bring her alive off the page. Evelyn herself is a victim of ‘phossy jaw’ (phosphorous necrosis) caused by working in a match factory, which means her lower face is severely disfigured, and she has been victimized and reviled on the streets: “The harsh words and violence had eaten away at my soul just as the phosphorous had my bone.” Her empathy with Joseph, her work at the hospital, and her quest to dispel the ghosts develop a self-confidence and gutsiness in Evelyn that provide the spine of the novel.
As in The Lost Kingdom, Kirby mixes real-life and fictional people. As well as Joseph Merrick, the novel also weaves in the murder victims, the patronizing Dr. Treves, Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, and stern but fair Matron Luckes. Joseph, who we only see through Evelyn’s eyes, changes from the ‘monster’ that his physical appearance suggests, to becoming a kind, valiant and sensitive gentleman as she gets to know him. Her growing protectiveness of his physical and emotional health allows Evelyn to realize that her own scarring does not define her, and that a person’s true nature, whether monster or not, is internal and not indicated by their looks.
Kirby has a masterful hand with the telling historical detail. Evelyn’s trips on the new underground railway and her expeditions into the grimy, frighteningly unprotected streets, contrast with the bustling sanctuary of the hospital, and both provide an authentic setting. Of course somethings resonate with today – the public has a paradoxical tabloid taste and revulsion for monsters, and the East End Jewish population is demonized and scapegoated. The author also revels in the contemporary patois, and though sometimes the meaning isn’t always clear, it’s easy to get the gist. One bravura passage has Evelyn and the other maids describe a salacious gossip as “an old haybag”, “a vile church-bell”, and “a blowsabella”.
The novel’s plotting and pacing, along with the character development, are so impeccable, I was just a little disappointed that Evelyn’s climactic epiphany seemed a tad too slick and easy. Nonetheless, the ending itself is satisfying and feels complete.
Teens who enjoy a mix of history and fantasy will surely love this, but it’s also worth trying with fans of straight historical fiction like Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace (Bloomsbury, 2011).
Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.