Review: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Things in Jars was a bit of a slow burn for me. I didn’t much get into it for the first fifty pages, but this book is yet another entry into the ‘why-you-shouldn’t-give-up-on-a-book-even-if-the-first-fifty-pages-don’t-have-you-hooked’ hall of fame, because I really got into the story properly only after 80 pages had gone and we got our first flashback.
The blurb describes it as a Victorian lady detective on a hunt to recover a missing child; but that’s not actually what the story is. Reading the blurb, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a straight Victorian thriller – but it’s actually way more about Bridie Devine, the detective, than it is about the mystery she’s solving. Bridie isn’t even really a detective, as she never seems to do much detecting in the novel. It also gets a bit fantastical and a bit eerie, as the missing child she’s trying to recover was stolen is actually a mermaid.
As I said earlier, this book takes a while to get going. A big barrier is the way the language immediately kicks off as a bit strange, a bit loose, a bit fantastical – and not particularly well-woven for that, or related to the plot as far as I could see. I always have a bit of a hard time with authors who write historical fiction by centering the language in the flowery, loose, unclear language that they presume was the hallmark of that time; but actually, the further Jess Kidd gets into her story, the more the language starts to fit the plot and the characters and the more confident she becomes in using that language, so it becomes easier to read and less annoying to wade through. The plot also gets quite gripping after our first flashback to Bridie’s childhood and we get to sketch out her motivations.
I also usually don’t like plots that straddle multiple genres, like this book does: it straddles historical fiction, a detective thriller, and fantasy. Usually there is no way for a story to satisfactorily incorporate all of those genres into one easy-to-follow or sensible plot, and unfortunately this book is no exception: while it does a good job of welding the fantasy into the story itself, it loses the historical fiction and the detective thriller in parts to make way for ghosts and mermaids. I never really felt like I was reading a fairy tale centered in any time period or reading a detective story with fairy tale aspects; it was more of an undefined fairy tale that moseyed through a few tropes of detective fiction. It ended up being quite an enjoyable read, and I tore through it in one setting because I was quite eager to see how it would all resolve, but I think the story may have been better served if Jess Kidd hadn’t tried writing three genres in one.
But, having said all that, I did particularly enjoy the sparing way the author treated her characters: they were all well fleshed-out, each had compelling and intricately crafted backstories, and, most importantly, none of them were superfluous. Every character introduced had an important connection to the central mystery, and it all comes together very neatly at the end. Jess Kidd wrote a very clever knot and resolved it without the Shock Twist Ending! that so many mystery writers reach for these days that I bloody flipping hate. If the writing sometimes – and only rarely – tips into original-for-the-sake-of-being-original, I can forgive that more easily for her writing and her characterization is never lazy.
All in all, this is a nice, enjoyable book that is worth the sitting through the slow slog of the first 80 pages. It really takes off and becomes gripping in the second third, and once all the threads start spooling out across the novel it becomes very, very difficult to put down. The writing also starts to fit the plot more once Jess Kidd completely leans into the fact that she’s writing a fantasy detective novel and gives up on the historical fiction aspect of it (the brief tangent about the building of the London Underground was, however, quite funny). I’m glad I stuck this book through, and I can safely recommend it – especially if you’ve read and liked any of Sarah Perry’s novels.
After this one, if you’re still in the market for a historical fiction mermaid book, I can recommend The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Gower – same kind of fantastical, historical vibe around a weird, scary mermaid.
Let me know your thoughts if you do pick up this book!