The Premise: Anne Jaccob is a privileged but bored young woman in 18th century London, horrified at the prospect of marrying the creepy dude her dad wants to palm her onto, and drawn to the far more manly but ridiculously named Fub, the butcher’s apprentice. Luckily, Anne’s not one to let a little thing like social propriety get in the way of her baser urges…
Thoughts: I had no idea what I was getting into here; I assumed this would be a typically dry historical novel, with people calling each other Miss and wearing petticoats, and, while The Butcher’s Hook does feature these tropes, it is far more entertaining than that. Anne is a brilliant character, whose eye-rolling narrative voice might be anachronistic, but is definitely wildly engaging. I chuckled more than once at her derogatory reflections on her family and unwanted suitor, and her willingness and ability to manipulate, deceive and blame her period when trying to get out of doing things all amused me immensely. As someone who once blamed their period for about 3 months to get out of swimming at school (sorry, Mrs Kirk), I totally relate.
The relationship between Anne and Fub is really interesting; their physical attraction is palpable and the open way in which Anne talks about it to the reader was something I’ve not really encountered before in historical novels. I amused myself by placing her in an Austen novel, traumatising the Bennets or Dashwoods with her brazenness. I’ve always wondered about girls in past centuries, who must have had crushes and physical desires but no outlet for them, which must have been mind-crushingly frustrating (in a number of ways).
The romantic part of the story occupies the narrative for just long enough before things start getting crazy, and it’s a mark of how well Ellis has executed her story that the more out-there elements of the story are not only convincing but bloody entertaining. If it’s anachronistic, then who cares: for me, it was the relative lack of realism in these sections that made this book so memorable. Trust me, the last thiird of The Butcher’s Hook does not go where you expect it to.
In Conclusion: I thought this book was brilliant. It’s funny, surprising and breaks the mould of historical novels. It’s also a very accomplished debut. I rather wish I had written it and it will be my new go-to recommendation.