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Review: A Net for Small Fishes, by Lucy Jago

The first thing I will say - this book was obviously a debut novel (apparently Lucy Jago is also a biographer, which is a very different skillset) but I will pick up whatever novel Jago writes next, as I definitely enjoyed her research and her storytelling and her attention to detail and time period and setting.


Right, having established my baseline of enjoyment, let's get into the nitty-gritty.


First off - I'm not entirely sure the writing style and the narrator best fit the story Jago was trying to tell. On the one hand, I really liked being able to inhabit the head of this woman I'd never heard of, and get a chance to look at life in the early seventeenth century from a perspective that almost never gets its own voice in fiction about the time; on the other hand, not being able to flit back and forth between characters meant that we missed a lot of the important build-up and twists that led to the climax because we only heard about them second-hand, when the primary players in those actions were relating them and their impact to the narrator. It also meant that a lot of facts and events, and their interpretations, were just given as fact because they were relayed to the narrator and she had no way of doing her own research, so the reader didn't either. I think a third-person narrator might have better served the story, as we could have gotten a more complete picture of the events leading up to Anne Turner's fall, and maybe learned more about the motivations of the people around her - maybe the free indirect style, a la Jane Austen, so we could have looked at the whole story as well as occasionally dipping into different characters' points of view.


The timeline also felt a bit weird - strangely, and perhaps too much, compressed in parts, while also skipping long stretches of time with very little acknowledgment of the fact that we were skipping months, even at one point half a year. It made keeping up with the events unfolding a bit bewildering at some parts of the narrative. Jago also went a bit too heavy-handed with her moral point in the last couple of chapters, and did that thing where she was worried we hadn't gotten the motivation of the characters so had our narrator come out and announce the whole point of the book right before the end, which just served to take out all of the subtlety of her characterization for me. She did that with a lot of her themes, actually, but I do think she will grow into subtlety as an author.


And, oh my God, the misogyny. I know that was the point, I know this time was frankly terrible for women, and I know most men just downright hated women and didn't consider them people - but oh my days, the amount of sermonizing and monologuing by all of the men in this book about how women are weak, and prone to sin, and not clever enough to have opinions and motives of their own, and how all women were good for were to be obedient and subservient to their husbands. I know, I know the point of those interminable monologues was to underscore the seething anger that inhabits Anne and Frankie - but by the big climactic scene of Anne's trial, I was so angry that I just wanted to scream every time Lord Chief Justice Coke opened his mouth. Honestly, I'm surprised Anne and Frankie went with poison instead of just bludgeoning all men to death with their high heels, because I was out of patience for all these men's BULLSHIT. If I never hear another man speak until the day I fucking die, it will be too soon.


Now, for the things I enjoyed: the research into this time period, the characters, and the story itself was meticulous, and brilliantly woven into the story, so that I got to enjoy it without ever feeling like I was being crammed full of history knowledge (not that I necessarily mind being crammed full of history knowledge, in fact I rather like it, but I am also not the general public, nor a group of English universities debating scrapping their Medieval History degrees. Will I ever not be angry about that? Unlikely. History is criminally underappreciated as a discipline.), and feeling fully transported to this time period, and the setting. Even the dialogue was well-rendered, with an eye to historical accuracy but without any of the gimmicks thrown in that other, less well-assured authors, feel the need to do to prove the fact that they did their research. The characters - the three or four that we got to spend any real time with, at least - were well-rendered, fully-realized, and interesting; Anne and Frankie, especially, as the two central women were complex and nuanced and the layers of their friendship was absolutely fascinating to peel back and examine over the course of the novel's 300 pages. The writing was excellent, as well - the creeping sense of dread that hangs over the entire last third of the book was so well-done that I could actually feel my stomach knotting as I read. Jago has also got a firm grasp of metaphor and lyricism and imagery, and all of it works together very competently, so that I never felt like I was pulled out of the story or the setting. The last 150 pages of the book are insanely compelling - I read them in one sitting, until 1am, because I could not bear to put it down.


All told, I did really enjoy this book, and I think the issues I had with it are born more of this being Lucy Jago's debut novel than any flaws in her technique as a researcher or a writer. It's a solid piece of historical fiction, and I will look forward to Jago's next piece of fiction writing and will read it eagerly.


Happy reading,

Amélie

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About

I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.